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University of California • Berkeley 

Gift of 



With the Author's 


24 WARWICK LANE. 1891 


I. The Two Pioneers 



II. Ideals and Idealists 


III. The Womanly Woman 


IV. The Plays 




Peer Gynt 


Emperor and Galilean 


The League of Youth 


Pillars of Society 


A Doll's House 




An Enemy of the People 


The Wild Duck 




The Lady from the Sea 


Hedda Gabler 


V. The Moral of the Plays 





IN the spring of 1890, the Fabian Society, 
finding itself at a loss for a course of lectures 
to occupy its summer meetings, was com- 
pelled to make shift with a series of papers put 
forward under the general heading " Socialism 
in Contemporary Literature." The Fabian 
Essayists, strongly pressed to do " something or 
other," for the most part shook their heads ; but 
in the end Sydney Olivier consented to " take 
Zola"; I consented to "take Ibsen"; and 
Hubert Bland undertook to read all the Socialist 
novels of the day, an enterprise the desperate 
failure of which resulted in the most amusing 
paper of the series. William Morris, asked to 
read a paper on himself, flatly declined, but gave 
us one on Gothic Architecture. Stepniak also 
came to the rescue with a lecture on modern 
Russian fiction ; and so the Society tided over 
the summer without having to close its doors, 
but also without having added anything what- 

vi Preface. 

ever to the general stock of information on 
Socialism in Contemporary Literature. After this 
I cannot claim that my paper on Ibsen, which 
was duly read at the St James's Restaurant on 
the 1 8th July 1890, under the presidency of 
Mrs Annie Besant, and which was the first form 
of this little book, is an original work in the 
sense of being the result of a spontaneous in- 
ternal impulse on my part. Havdng purposely 
couched it in the most provocative terms (of 
which traces may be found by the curious in 
its present state), I did not attach much import- 
ance to the somewhat lively debate that arose 
upon it ; and I had laid it aside as a piece 
d'occasion which had served its turn, when the 
production of Rosinershohn at the Vaudeville 
Theatre by Miss Farr, the inauguration of the 
Independent Theatre by Mr J. T. Grein with a 
performance of Ghosts, and the sensation created 
by the experiment of Miss Robins and Miss Lea 
with Hedda Gabler, started a frantic newspaper 
controversy, in which I could see no sign of any 
of the disputants having ever been forced by 
circumstances, as I had, to make up his mind 
definitely as to what Ibsen's plays meant, and to 
defend his view face to face with some of the 

Preface. vii 

keenest debaters in London. I allow due weight 
to the fact that Ibsen himself has not enjoyed 
this advantage (see page 56) ; but I have also 
shewn that the existence of a discoverable and 
perfectly definite thesis in a poet's work by no 
means depends on the completeness of his own 
intellectual consciousness of it. At any rate, 
the controversialists, whether in the abusive 
stage, or the apologetic stage, or the hero wor- 
shipping stage, by no means made clear what 
they were abusing, or apologizing for, or going 
into ecstasies about ; and I came to the con- 
clusion that my explanation might as well be 
placed in the field until a better could be found. 
With this account of the origin of the book, 
and a reminder that it is not a critical essay on 
the poetic beauties of Ibsen, but simply an ex- 
position of Ibsenism, I offer it to the public to 
make what they can of. 

London, /zm^ 1891. 





THAT is, pioneers of the march to the plains 
of heaven (so to speak). 

The second, whose eyes are in the back 
of his head, is the man who declares that it is 
wrong to do something that no one has hitherto 
seen any harm in. 

The first, whose eyes are very longsighted and 
in the usual place, is the man who declares that 
it is right to do something hitherto regarded as 

The second is treated with great respect by 
the army. They give him testimonials ; name 
him the Good Man ; and hate him like the 

The first is stoned and shrieked at by the 
whole army. They call him all manner of oppro- 
brious names ; grudge him his bare bread and 

2 . Tlie Qiiintesse7ice of Ibsenism. 

water; and secretly adore him as their saviour 
from utter despair. 

Let me take an example from life of my 
pioneer. Shelley was a pioneer and nothing else : 
he did both first and second pioneer's work. 

Now compare the effect produced by Shelley 
as abstinence preacher or second pioneer with 
that which he produced as indulgence preacher 
or first pioneer. For example : — 

Second Pioneer Proposition. — It is wrong 
to kill animals and eat them. 

First Pioneer Proposition.— It is not 
wrong to take your sister as your wife. 

Here the second pioneer appears as a gentle 
humanitarian, and the first as an unnatural 
corrupter of public morals and family life. So 
much easier is it to declare the right wrong than 
the wrong right in a society with a guilty con- 
science, to which, as to Dickens's detective, 
" Any possible move is a probable move pro- 
vided it's in a wrong direction." Just as the 
liar's punishment is, not in the least that he 
is not believed, but that he cannot believe any 
one else, so a guilty society can more easily be 
persuaded that any apparently innocent act is 
guilty than that any apparently guilty act is 

The English newspaper which best represents 
the guilty conscience of the middle class, or 

The Tivo Pioneers. , 3 

dominant factor in society to-day, is the Daily 
Telegraph. If we can find the Daily Telegraph 
speaking of Ibsen as the Quarterly Review used 
to speak of Shelley, it will occur to us at once 
that there must be something of the first pioneer 
about Ibsen. 

Mr Clement Scott, dramatic critic to the 
Daily Telegraph, a good - natured gentleman, 
not a pioneer, but emotional, impressionable, 
zealous, and sincere, accuses Ibsen of dramatic 
impotence, ludicrous amateurishness, nastiness, 
vulgarity, egotism, coarseness, absurdity, un- 
interesting verbosity, and suburbanity, declar- 
ing that he has taken ideas that would have 
inspired a great tragic poet, and vulgarized 
and debased them in dull, hateful, loathsome, 
horrible plays. This criticism, which occurs in 
a notice of the first performance of Ghosts in 
England, is to be found in the Daily Telegraph for 
the 14th March 1891, and is supplemented by a 
leading article which compares the play to an 
open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a 
dirty act done publicly, or a lazar house with all 
its doors and windows open. Bestial, cynical, 
disgusting, poisonous, sickly, delirious, indecent, 
loathsome, fetid, literary carrion, crapulous stuff, 
clinical confessions : all these epithets are used 
in the article as descriptive of Ibsen's work. 
" Realism," says the writer, " is one thing ; but 

4 The Qiiintessetice of Ibsenism. 

the nostrils of the audience must not be visibly 
held before a play can be stamped as true to 
nature. It is difficult to expose in decorous 
words — the gross, and almost putrid indecorum 
of this play." As the performance of Ghosts 
took place on the evening of the 13th March, 
and the criticism appeared next morning, it is 
evident that Mr Scott must have gone straight 
from the theatre to the newspaper office, and there, 
in an almost hysterical condition, penned his 
share of this extraordinary protest. The literary 
workmanship bears marks of haste and disorder, 
which, however, only heighten the expression of 
the passionate horror produced in the writer by 
seeing Ghosts on the stage. He calls on the 
authorities to cancel the license of the theatre, 
and declares that he has been exhorted to laugh 
at honour, to disbelieve in love, to mock at 
virtue, to distrust friendship, and to deride 
fidelity. If this document were at all singular, 
it would rank as one of the curiosities of criticism, 
exhibiting, as it does, the most seasoned play- 
goer in the world thrown into convulsions by a 
performance which was witnessed with approval, 
and even with enthusiasm, by many persons of 
approved moral and artistic conscientiousness. 
But Mr Scott's criticism was hardly distin- 
guishable in tone from hundreds of others which 
appeared simultaneously. His opinion was the 

The Tzvo Pioneers. 5 

vulgar opinion. Mr Alfred Watson, critic to 
the Standard, the leading Tory daily paper, pro- 
posed that proceedings should be taken against 
the theatre under Lord Campbell's Act for the 
suppression of disorderly houses. Clearly Mr 
Scott and his editor Sir Edwin Arnold, with 
whom rests the responsibility for the article 
which accompanied the criticism, may claim to 
represent a considerable party. How then is 
it that Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright of Euro- 
pean celebrity, attracts one section of the Eng- 
lish people so strongly that they hail him as 
the greatest living dramatic poet and moral 
teacher, whilst another section is so revolted by 
his works that they describe him in terms which 
they themselves admit are, by the necessities of 
the case, all but obscene? This phenomenon, 
which has occurred throughout Europe wherever 
Ibsen's plays have been acted, as well as in 
America and Australia, must be exhaustively 
explained before the plays can be described 
without danger of reproducing the same con- 
fusion in the reader's own mind. Such an 
explanation, therefore, must be my first business. 
Understand, at the outset, that the explana- 
tion will not be an explaining away. Mr 
Clement Scott's judgment has not misled him in 
the least as to Ibsen's meaning. Ibsen means 
all that most revolts his critic. For example, in 

6 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

Ghosts, the play in question, a clergyman and a 
married woman fall in love with one another. 
The woman proposes to abandon her husband 
and live with the clergyman. He recalls her to 
her duty, and makes her behave as a virtuous 
woman. She afterwards tells him that this was 
a crime on his part. Ibsen agrees with her, 
and has written the play to bring you round to 
his opinion. Mr Clement Scott does not agree 
with her, and believes that when you are brought 
round to her opinion you will be morally 
corrupted. By this conviction he is impelled to 
denounce Ibsen as he does, Ibsen being equally 
impelled to propagate the convictions which pro- 
voke the attack. Which of the two is right can- 
not be decided until it is ascertained whether a 
society of persons holding Ibsen's opinions would 
be higher or lower than a society holding Mr 
Clement Scott's. 

There are many people who cannot conceive 
this as an open question. To them a denuncia- 
tion of any of the recognized virtues is an incite- 
ment to unsocial conduct ; and every utterance in 
which an assumption of the eternal validity of 
these virtues is not implicit, is a paradox. Yet 
all progress involves the beating of them from 
that position. By way of illustration, one may 
rake up the case of Proudhon, who nearly half 
a century ago denounced "property" as theft. 

TJie Tzvo Pioneers. 7 

This was thought the very maddest paradox that 
ever man hazarded : it seemed obvious that a 
society which countenanced such a proposition 
would speedily be reduced to the condition of a 
sacked city. To-day schemes for the confisca- 
tion by taxation of mining royalties and ground 
rents are commonplaces of social reform ; and 
the honesty of the relation of our big property 
holders to the rest of the community is challenged 
on all hands. It would be easy to multiply in- 
stances, though the most complete are now 
ineffective through the triumph of the original 
" paradox " having obliterated all memory of the 
opposition it first had to encounter. The point 
to seize is that social progress takes effect 
through the replacement of old institutions by 
new ones ; and since every institution involves 
the recognition of the duty of conforming to it, 
progress must involve the repudiation of an 
established duty at every step. If the English- 
man had not repudiated the duty of absolute 
obedience to his king, his political progress would 
have been impossible. If women had not re- 
pudiated the duty of absolute submission to their 
husbands, and defied public opinion as to the 
limits set by modesty to their education, they 
would never have gained the protection of the 
Married Women's Property Act or the power 
to qualify themselves as medical practitioners. 

8 The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

If Luther had not trampled on his duty to the 
head of his Church and on his vow of chastity, 
our priests would still have to choose between 
celibacy and profligacy. There is nothing new, 
then, in the defiance of duty by the reformer : 
every step of progress means a duty repudiated, 
and a scripture torn up. And every reformer is 
denounced accordingly, Luther as an apostate, 
Cromwell as a traitor, Mary Wollestonecraft as 
an unwomanly virago, Shelley as a libertine, and 
Ibsen as all the things enumerated in the Daily 

This crablike progress of social evolution, in 
which the individual advances by seeming to go 
backward, continues to illude us in spite of all 
the lessons of history. To the pious man the 
newly made freethinker, suddenly renouncing 
supernatural revelation, and denying all obliga- 
tion to believe the Bible and obey the command- 
ments as such, appears to be claiming the right 
to rob and murder at large. But the freethinker 
soon finds reasons for not doing what he does 
not want to do ; and these reasons seem to him 
to be far more binding on the conscience than 
the precepts of a book of which the divine in- 
spiration cannot be rationally proved. The pious 
man is at last forced to admit — as he was in the 
case of the late Charles Bradlaugh, for instance 
— that the disciples of Voltaire and Tom Paine 

The Tiuo Pioneers. 9 

do not pick pockets or cut throats oftener than 
your even Christian : he actually is driven to 
doubt whether Voltaire himself really screamed 
and saw the devil on his deathbed. 

This experience by no means saves the ration- 
alist * from falling into the same conservatism 
when the time comes for his own belief to 
be questioned. No sooner has he triumphed 
over the theologian than he forthwith sets up as 
binding on all men the duty of acting logically 
with the object of securing the greatest good of 
the greatest number, with the result that he is 
presently landed in vivisection, Contagious 
Diseases Acts, dynamite conspiracies, and other 
grotesque but strictly reasonable abominations. 
Reason becomes Dagon, Moloch, and Jehovah 
rolled into one. Its devotees exult in having 
freed themselves from the old slavery to a col- 
lection of books written by Jewish men of letters. 
To worship such books was, they can prove, 
manifestly as absurd as to worship sonatas com- 
posed by German musicians, as was done by 
the hero of Wagner's novelette, who sat up on 
his deathbed to say his creed, beginning, " I 
believe in God, Mozart, and Beethoven." The 
Voltairian freethinker despises such a piece of 

* I had better here warn students of philosophy that I 
am speaking of rationalism, not as classified in the books, 
but as apparent in men. 

lO TJie Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

sentiment ; but is it not much more sensible to 
worship a sonata constructed by a musician than 
to worship a syllogism constructed by a logician, 
since the sonata may at least inspire feelings of 
awe and devotion ? This does not occur to the 
votary of reason ; and rationalist " free-think- 
ing" soon comes to mean syllogism worship 
with rites of human sacrifice ; for just as the 
rationalist's pious predecessor thought that the 
man who scoffed at the Bible must infallibly 
yield without resistance to all his criminal pro- 
pensities, so the rationalist in turn becomes 
convinced that when a man once loses his faith 
in Mr Herbert Spencer's Data of Ethics, he is 
no longer to be trusted to keep his hands off 
his neighbour's person, purse, or wife. 

In process of time the age of reason had to go 
its way after the age of faith. In actual expe- 
rience, the first shock to rationalism came from 
the observation that though nothing could per- 
suade women to adopt it, their inaptitude for 
reasoning no more prevented them from arriving 
at right conclusions than the masculine aptitude 
for it saved men from arriving at wrong ones. 
When this generalization had to be modified in 
view of the fact that some women did at last 
begin to try their skill at ratiocination, reason was 
not re-established on the throne ; because the 
result of Woman's reasoning was that she began 

Tlie Tivo Pioneers. ii 

to fall into all the errors which men are just learn- 
ing to mistrust. From the moment she set about 
doing things for reasons instead of merely find- 
ing reasons for what she wanted to do, there was 
no saying what mischief she would be at next ; 
since there are just as good reasons for burning 
a heretic at the stake as for rescuing a ship- 
wrecked crew from drowning — in fact, there 
are better. One of the first and most famous 
utterances of rationalism would have condemned 
it without further hearing had its full signifi- 
cance been seen at the time. Voltaire, taking 
exception to the trash of some poetaster, was 
met with the plea " One must live." " I dont 
see the necessity," replied Voltaire. The evasion 
was worthy of the Father of Lies himself ; for 
Voltaire was face to face with the very neces- 
sity he was denying — must have known, con- 
sciously or not, that it was the universal postulate 
— would have understood, if he had lived to- 
day, that since all human institutions are con- 
structed to fulfil man's will, and that his will 
is to live even when his reason teaches him to 
die, logical necessity, which was the sort Voltaire 
meant (the other sort being visible enough) 
can never be a motor in human action, and is, 
in short, not necessity at all. But that was 
not brought to light in Voltaire's time ; and 
he died impenitent, bequeathing to his disciples 

1 2 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

that most logical of agents, the guillotine, which 
also "did not see the necessity." In our own 
century the recognition of the will as distinct 
from the reasoning machinery began to spread. 
Schopenhauer was the first among the moderns * 
to appreciate the enormous practical importance 
of the distinction, and to make it clear to 
amateur metaphysicians by concrete instances. 
Out of his teaching came the formulation of the 
dilemma that Voltaire shut his eyes to. Here it 
is. Rationally considered, life is only worth 
living when its pleasures are greater than its 

■^ I say the moderns, because the will is our old 
friend the soul or spirit of man ; and the doctrine of jus- 
tification, not by works, but by faith, clearly derives its 
validity from the consideration that no action, taken 
apart from the will behind it, has any moral character : 
for example, the acts which make the murderer and 
incendiary infamous are exactly similar to those which 
make the patriotic hero famous. " Original sin " is the 
will doing mischief. "Divine grace" is the will doing 
good. Our fathers, unversed in the Hegelian dialectic, 
could not conceive that these two, each the negation of 
the other, were the same. Schopenhauer's philosophy, 
like that of all pessimists, is really based on the old 
view of the will as original sin, and on the 1750-1850 
view that the intellect is the divine grace that is to save 
us from it. It is as well to warn those who fancy that 
Schopenhaucrism is one and indivisible, that acceptance 
of its metaphysics by no means involves endorsement of 
its philosophy. 

The Two Pioneers. 13 

pains. Now to a generation which has ceased to 
believe in heaven, and has not yet learned that 
the degradation by poverty of four out of every 
five of its number is artificial and remediable, the 
fact that life is not worth living is obvious. It is 
useless to pretend that the pessimism of Kohe- 
leth, Shakspere, Dryden, and Swift can be refuted 
if the world progresses solely by the destruction 
of the unfit, and yet can only maintain its civi- 
lization by manufacturing the unfit in swarms of 
which that appalling proportion of four to one 
represents but the comparatively fit surviv^ors. 
Plainly then, the reasonable thing for the ration- 
alists to do is to refuse to live. But as none of 
them will commit suicide in obedience to this 
demonstration of " the necessity " for it, there is 
an end of the notion that we live for reasons 
instead of in fulfilment of our will to live. Thus 
we are landed afresh in mystery ; for positive 
science gives no account whatever of this will to 
live. Indeed the utmost light that positive science 
throws is but feeble in comparison with the 
illumination that was looked forward to when it 
first began to dazzle us with its analyses of the 
machinery of sensation — its researches into the 
nature of sound and the construction of the ear, 
the nature of light and the construction of the 
eye, its measurement of the speed of sensation, 
its localization of the functions of the brain, 

14 The Qtmitessence of Ibsenism. 

and its hints as to the possibility of producing a 
homunculus presently as the fruit of its chemical 
investigation of protoplasm. The fact remains 
that when Darwin, Haeckel, Helmholtz, Young, 
and the rest, popularized here among the middle 
class by Tyndall and Huxley, and among the 
proletariat by the lectures of the National Secu- 
lar Society, have taught you all they know, you 
are still as utterly at a loss to explain the fact 
of consciousness as you would have been in the 
days when you were satisfied with Chambers' 
Vestiges of Creation. Materialism, in short, only 
isolated the great mystery of consciousness by 
clearing away several petty mysteries with which 
we had confused it; just as rationalism isolated the 
great mystery of the will to live. The isolation 
made both more conspicuous than before. We 
thought we had escaped for ever from the 
cloudy region of metaphysics ; and we were only 
carried further into the heart of them.* 

■^ The correlation between rationalism and materialism 
in this process has some immediate practical import- 
ance. Those who give up materialism whilst clinging to 
rationalism generally either relapse into abject submis- 
sion to the most paternal of the Churches, or are caught 
by the attempts, constantly renewed, of mystics to found 
a new faith by rationalizing on the hollowness of mate- 
rialism. The hollowness has nothing in it ; and if you 
have come to grief as a materialist by reasoning about 
something, you are not likely, as a mystic, to improve 
matters by reasoning about nothing. 

The Two Pioneers. 15 

We have not yet worn off the strangeness of 
the position to which we have now been led. 
Only the other day our highest boast was that 
we were reasonable human beings. To-day we 
laugh at that conceit, and see ourselves as wilful 
creatures. Ability to reason accurately is as 
desirable as ever, since it is only by accurate 
reasoning that we can calculate our actions so 
as to do what we intend to do — that is, to fulfil 
our will ; but faith in reason as a prime motor is 
no longer the criterion of the sound mind, any 
more than faith in the Bible is the criterion of 
righteous intention. 

At this point, accordingly, the illusion as to 
the retrogressive movement of progress recurs 
as strongly as ever. Just as the beneficent step 
from theology to rationalism seems to the 
theologist a growth of impiety, does the step 
from rationalism to the recognition of the will 
as the prime motor strike the rationalist as a 
lapse of common sanity, so that to both theolo- 
gist and rationalist progress at last appears 
alarming, threatening, hideous, because it seems 
to tend towards chaos. The deists Voltaire and 
Tom Paine were, to the divines of their day, 
predestined devils, tempting mankind hellward. 
To deists and divines alike Ferdinand Lassalle, 
the godless self-worshipper and man-worshipper 
would have been a monster. Yet many who to- 

1 6 The Qiimtessence of Ibsenisin. 

day echo Lassalle's demand that economic and 
political institutions should be adapted to the 
poor man's will to eat and drink his fill out of 
the product of his own labour, are revolted by 
Ibsen's acceptance of the impulse towards greater 
freedom as sufficient ground for the repudiation 
of any customary duty, however sacred, that 
conflicts with it. Society — were it even as free 
as Lassalle's Social-Democratic republic — rmisiy 
it seems to them, go to pieces when conduct is 
no longer regulated by inviolable covenants. 

For what, during all these overthrowings of 
things sacred and things infallible, has been 
happening to that pre-eminently sanctified 
thing, Duty? Evidently it cannot have come 
off scatheless. First there was man's duty to 
God, with the priest as assessor. That was 
repudiated ; and then came Man's duty to his 
neighbour, with Society as the assessor. Will 
this too be repudiated, and be succeeded by 
Man's duty to himself, assessed by himself? 
And if so, what will be the effect on the con- 
ception of Duty in the abstract ? Let us see. 

I have just called Lassalle a self-worshipper. 
In doing so I cast no reproach on him ; for 
this is the last step in the evolution of the 
conception of duty. Duty arises at first, a 
gloomy tyranny, out of man's helplessness, his 
self- mistrust, in a word, his abstract fear. He 

The Tzvo Pioneers. \y 

personifies all that he abstractly fears as God, 
and straightway becomes the slave of his duty 
to God. He imposes that slavery fiercely on 
his children, threatening them with hell, and 
punishing them for their attempts to be happy. 
When, becoming bolder, he ceases to fear every- 
thing, and dares to love something, this duty of 
his to what he fears evolves into a sense of duty 
to what he loves. Sometimes he again personi- 
fies what he loves as God; and the God of Wrath 
becomes the God of Love : sometimes he at once 
becomes a humanitarian, an altruist, acknowledg- 
ing only his duty to his neighbour. This stage is 
correlative to the rationalist stage in the evolu- 
tion of philosophy and the capitalist phase in the 
evolution of industry. But in it the emancipated 
slave of God falls under the dominion of Society, 
which, having just reached a phase in which all 
the love is ground out of it by the competitive 
struggle for money, remorselessly crushes him 
until, in due course of the further growth of his 
spirit or will, a sense at last arises in him of his 
duty to himself. And when this sense is fully 
grown, which it hardly is yet, the tyranny of duty 
is broken ; for now the man's God is himself ; 
and he, self-satisfied at last, ceases to be selfish. 
The evangelist of this last step must therefore 
preach the repudiation of duty. This, to the un- 
prepared of his generation, is indeed the wanton 

1 8 TJie Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

masterpiece of paradox. What ! after all that 
has been said by men of noble life as to the 
secret of all right conduct being only " Duty, 
duty, duty," is he to be told now that duty is 
the primal curse from which we must redeem 
ourselves before we can advance another step 
on the road along which, as we imagine — having 
forgotten the repudiations made by our fathers 
— duty and duty alone has brought us thus 
far? But why not? God was once the most 
sacred of our conceptions ; and he had to be 
denied. Then Reason became the Infallible 
Pope, only to be deposed in turn. Is Duty 
more sacred than God or Reason ? 

Having now arrived at the prospect of the 
repudiation of duty by Man, I shall make a 
digression on the subject of ideals and idealists, 
as treated by Ibsen. I shall go round in a loop, 
and come back to the same point by way of the 
repudiation of duty by Woman ; and then at last 
I shall be in a position to describe the plays 
without risk of misunderstanding. 




E have seen that as Man grows through the 
ages, he finds himself bolder by the growth 
of his spirit (if I may so name the un- 
known) and dares more and more to love and 
trust instead of to fear and fight. But his courage 
has other effects : he also raises himself from 
mere consciousness to knowledge by daring more 
and more to face facts and tell himself the 
truth. For in his infancy of helplessness and 
terror he could not face the inexorable ; and 
facts being of all things the most inexorable, he 
masked all the threatening ones as fast as he 
discovered them ; so that now every mask re- 
quires a hero to tear it off. The king of terrors, 
Death, was the Arch-Inexorable : Man could 
not bear the dread of that thought. He must 
persuade himself that Death could be propi- 
tiated, circumvented, abolished. How he fixed 
the mask of immortality on the face of Death for 
this purpose we all know. And he did the like 
with all disagreeables as long as they remained 
inevitable. Otherwise he must have gone mad 

20 TJie Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

with terror of the grim shapes around him, 
headed by the skeleton with the scythe and 
hourglass. The masks were his ideals, as he 
called them ; and what, he would ask, would 
life be without ideals? Thus he became an 
idealist, and remained so until he dared to 
begin pulling the masks off and looking the 
spectres in the face — dared, that is, to be more 
and more a realist. But all men are not equally 
brave ; and the greatest terror prevailed when- 
ever some realist bolder than the rest laid hands 
on a mask which they did not yet dare to do 

We have plenty of these masks around us 
still — some of them more fantastic than any 
of the Sandwich islanders' masks in the British 
Museum. In our novels and romances especially 
we see the most beautiful of all the masks — 
those devised to disguise the brutalities of the 
sexual instinct in the earlier stages of its de- 
velopment, and to soften the rigorous aspect of 
the iron laws by which Society regulates its 
gratification. When the social organism be- 
comes bent on civilization, it has to force mar- 
riage and family life on the individual, because 
it can perpetuate itself in no other way whilst 
love is still known only by fitful glimpses, the 
basis of sexual relationship being in the main 
mere physical appetite. Under these circum- 

Ideals and Idealists. 21 

stances men try to graft pleasure on necessity 
by desperately pretending that the institution 
forced upon them is a congenial one, making 
it a point of public decency to assume always 
that men spontaneously love their kindred better 
than their chance acquaintances, and that the 
woman once desired is always desired : also that 
the family is woman's proper sphere, and that 
no really womanly woman ever forms an attach- 
ment, or even knows what it means, until she 
is requested to do so by a man. Now if 
anyone's childhood has been embittered by the 
dislike of his mother and the ill-temper of his 
father ; if his wife has ceased to care for him 
and he is heartily tired of his wife ; if his brother 
is going to law with him over the division 
of the family property, and his son acting in 
studied defiance of his plans and wishes, it is 
hard for him to persuade himself that passion 
is eternal and that blood is thicker than water. 
Yet if he tells himself the truth, all his life seems 
a waste and a failure by the light of it. It comes 
then to this, that his neighbours must either 
agree with him that the whole system is a mis- 
take, and discard it for a new one, which cannot 
possibly happen until social organization so far 
outgrows the institution that Society can per- 
petuate itself without it ; or else they must keep 
him in countenance by resolutely making believe 

22 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

that all the illusions with which it has been 
masked are realities. 

For the sake of precision, let us imagine a 
community of a thousand persons, organized 
for the perpetuation of the species on the basis 
of the British family as we know it at present. 
Seven hundred of them, we will suppose, find the 
British family arrangement quite good enough 
for them. Two hundred and ninety-nine find it 
a failure, but must put up with it since they are 
in a minority. The remaining person occupies 
a position to be explained presently. The 299 
failures will not have the courage to face the 
fact that they are failures — irremediable failures, 
since they cannot prevent the 700 satisfied ones 
from coercing them into conformity with the 
marriage law. They will accordingly try to 
persuade themselves that, whatever their own 
particular domestic arrangements may be, the 
family is a beautiful and holy natural institu- 
tion. For the fox not only declares that the 
grapes he cannot get are sour : he also insists that 
the sloes he can get are sweet. Now observe what 
has happened. The family as it really is is a 
conventional arrangement, legally enforced, which 
the majority, because it happens to suit them, 
think good enough for the minority, whom it 
happens not to suit at all. The family as a beau- 
tiful and holy natural institution is only a fancy 

Ideals and Idealists. 23 

picture of what every family would have to be if 
everybody was to be suited, invented by the 
minority as a mask for the reality, which in its 
nakedness is intolerable to them. We call this 
sort of fancy picture an IDEAL ; and the policy 
of forcing individuals to act on the assumption 
that all ideals are real, and to recognize and 
accept such action as standard moral conduct, 
absolutely valid under all circumstances, con- 
trary conduct or any advocacy of it being dis- 
countenanced and punished as immoral, may 
therefore be described as the policy of IDEALISM. 
Our 299 domestic failures are therefore become 
idealists as to marriage ; and in proclaiming the 
ideal in fiction, poetry, pulpit and platform 
oratory, and serious private conversation, they 
will far outdo the 700 who comfortably accept 
marriage as a matter of course, never dreaming 
of calling it an " institution," much less a holy 
and beautiful one, and being pretty plainly of 
opinion that idealism is a crackbrained fuss about 
nothing. The idealists, hurt by this, will retort 
by calling them Philistines. VVe then have our 
society classified as 700 Philistines and 299 
idealists, leaving one man unclassified. He is the 
man who is strong enough to face the truth that 
the idealists are shirking. He says flatly of 
marriage, " This thing is a failure for many of us. 
It is insufferable that two human beings, having 

24 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

entered into relations which only warm affection 
can render tolerable, should be forced to main- 
tain them after such affections have ceased to 
exist, or in spite of the fact that they have never 
arisen. The alleged natural attractions and 
repulsions upon which the family ideal is based 
do not exist ; and it is historically false that the 
family was founded for the purpose of satisfying 
them. Let us provide otherwise for the social 
ends which the family subserves, and then abol- 
ish its compulsory character altogether." What 
will be the attitude of the rest to this outspoken 
man ? The Philistines will simply think him 
mad. But the idealists will be terrified beyond 
measure at the proclamation of their hidden 
thought — at the presence of the traitor among 
the conspirators of silence — at the rending of the 
beautiful veil they and their poets have woven to 
hide the unbearable face of the truth. They will 
crucify him, burn him, violate their own ideals of 
family affection by taking his children away from 
him, ostracize him, brand him as immoral, pro- 
fligate, filthy, and appeal against him to the 
despised Philistines, specially idealized for the 
occasion as SOCIETY. How far they will proceed 
against him depends on how far his courage ex- 
ceeds theirs. At his worst, they call him cynic 
and paradoxer : at his best they do their utmost 
to ruin him if not to take his life. Thus, purblindly 

Ideals and Idealists. 25 

courageous moralists like Mandeville and La- 
rochefoucauld, who merely state unpleasant facts 
without denying the validity of current ideals, 
and who indeed depend on those ideals to make 
their statements piquant, get off with nothing 
worse than this name of cynic, the free use of 
which is a familiar mark of the zealous idealist. 
But take the case of the man who has already 
served us as an example — Shelley. The idealists 
did not call Shelley a cynic : they called him a 
fiend until they invented a new illusion to enable 
them to enjoy the beauty of his lyrics — said 
illusion being nothing less than the pretence 
that since he was at bottom an idealist him- 
self, his ideals must be identical with those of 
Tennyson and Longfellow, neither of whom ever 
wrote a line in which some highly respectable 
ideal was not implicit.* 

* The following are examples of the two stages of 
Shelley criticism : — 

" We feel as if one of the darkest of the fiends had 
been clothed with a human body to enable him to gratify 
his enmity against the human race, and as if the super- 
natural atrocity of his hate were only heightened by his 
power to do injury. So strongly has this impression 
dwelt upon our minds that we absolutely asked a friend, 
who had seen this individual, to describe him to us — as if 
a cloven hoof, or horn, or flames from the mouth, must 
have marked the external appearance of so bitter an 
enemy of mankind." {Literary Gazette^ 19th May 182 1.) 

" A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void 

26 The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

Here the admission that Shelley, the realist, 
was an idealist too, seems to spoil the whole 
argument. And it certainly spoils its verbal 
consistency. For we unfortunately use this word 
ideal indifferently to denote both the institu- 
tion which the ideal masks and the mask it- 
self, thereby producing desperate confusion of 
thought, since the institution may be an effete 
and poisonous one, whilst the mask may be, 
and indeed generally is, an image of what we 
would fain have in its place. If the existing 
facts, with their masks on, are to be called 
ideals, and the future possibilities which the 
masks depict are also to be called ideals — if, 
again, the man who is defending existing insti- 
tutions by maintaining their identity with their 
masks is to be confounded under one name with 
the man who is striving to realize the future 
possibilities by tearing the mask and the thing 
masked asunder, then the position cannot be 
intelligibly described by mortal pen : you and I, 
reader, will be at cross purposes at every sentence 

his luminous wings in vain." (Matthew Arnold, in 
his preface to the selection of poems by Byron, dated 

The 1 88 1 opinion is much sillier than the 1821 opinion. 
Further samples will be found in the articles of Henry 
Salt, one of the few writers on Shelley who understand his 
true position as a social pioneer. 

Ideals and Idealists. 27 

unless you allow me to distinguish pioneers like 
Shelley and Ibsen as realists from the idealists of 
my imaginary community of one thousand. If 
you ask why I have not allotted the terms the 
other way, and called Shelley and Ibsen idealists 
and the conventionalists realists, I reply that Ibsen 
himself, though he has not formally made the 
distinction, has so repeatedly harped on conven- 
tions and conventionalists as ideals and idealists 
that if I were now perversely to call them 
realities and realists, I should confuse readers of 
The Wild Duck and RosDiershobn more than I 
should help them. Doubtless I shall be re- 
proached for puzzling people by thus limiting 
the meaning of the term ideal. But what, I 
ask, is that inevitable passing perplexity com- 
pared to the inextricable tangle I must produce 
if I follow the custom, and use the word indis- 
criminately in its two violently incompatible 
senses ? If the term realist is objected to on 
account of some of its modern associations, I can 
only recommend you, if you must associate it 
with something else than my own description of 
its meaning (I do not deal in definitions), to 
associate it, not with Zola and Maupassant, but 
with Plato. 

Now let us return to our community of 700 
Philistines, 299 idealists, and t realist. The 
mere verbal ambiguity against which I have 

28 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

just provided is as nothing beside that which 
comes of any attempt to express the relations of 
these three sections, simple as they are, in terms 
of the ordinary systems of reason and duty. 
The ideaHst, higher in the ascent of evolution than 
the Philistine, yet hates the highest and strikes 
at him with a dread and rancour of which the 
easy-going Philistine is guiltless. The man who 
has risen above the danger and the fear that his 
acquisitiveness will lead him to theft, his temper 
to murder, and his affections to debauchery : 
this is he who is denounced as an arch-scoundrel 
and libertine, and thus confounded with the 
lowest because he is the highest. And it is not 
the ignorant and stupid who maintain this error, 
but the literate and the cultured. When the 
true prophet speaks, he is proved to be both 
rascal and idiot, not by those who have never 
read of how foolishly such learned demonstra- 
tions have come off in the past, but by those who 
have themselves written volumes on the cruci- 
fixions, the burnings, the stonings, the headings 
and hangings, the Siberia transportations, the 
calumny and ostracism which have been the lot 
of the pioneer as well as of the camp follower. 
It is from men of established literary reputation 
that we learn that William Blake was mad, that 
Shelley was spoiled by living in a low set, that 
Robert Owen was a man who did not know the 

Ideals and Idealists. 29 

world, that Ruskin is incapable of comprehending 
poHtical economy, that Zola is a mere blackguard, 
and that Ibsen is " a Zola with a wooden leg." 
The great musician, accepted by the unskilled 
listener, is vilified by his fellow-musicians : it was 
the musical culture of Europe that pronounced 
Wagner the inferior of Mendelssohn and Meyer- 
beer. The great artist finds his foes among the 
painters, and not among the men in the street : 
it is the Royal Academy which places Mr 
Marcus Stone — not to mention Mr Hodgson — 
above Mr Burne Jones. It is not rational that 
it should be so ; but it is so, for all that. The 
realist at last loses patience with ideals altogether, 
and sees in them only something to blind us, 
something to numb us, something to murder 
self in us, something whereby, instead of resist- 
ing death, we can disarm it by committing 
suicide. The idealist, who has taken refuge 
with the ideals because he hates himself and is 
ashamed of himself, thinks that all this is so 
much the better. The realist, who has come to 
have a deep respect for himself and faith in the 
validity of his own will, thinks it so much the 
worse. To the one, human nature, naturally 
corrupt, is only held back from the excesses of 
the last years of the Roman empire by self- 
denying conformity to the ideals. To the other 
these ideals are only swaddling clothes which 

30 The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

man has outgrown, and which insufferably impede 
his movements. No wonder the two cannot 
agree. The idealist says, " Realism means 
egotism ; and egotism means depravity." The 
realist declares that when a man abnegates the 
will to live and be free in a world of the living 
and free, seeking only to conform to ideals for 
the sake of being, not himself, but " a good man," 
then he is morally dead and rotten, and must be 
left unheeded to abide his resurrection, if that by 
good luck arrive before his bodily death. Un- 
fortunately, this is the sort of speech that nobody 
but a realist understands. It will be more 
amusing as well as more convincing to take an 
actual example of an idealist criticising a realist. 



EVERYBODY remembers the " Diary of 
Marie Bashkirtseff." An outline of it, with 
a running commentary, was given in the 
Revieiv of Reviezvs (June 1890) by the editor, Mr 
WiUiam Stead, a sort of modern JuHan the Apos- 
tate, who, having gained an immense following 
by a public service in rendering which he had to 
perform a realistic feat of a somewhat scandalous 
character, entered upon a campaign with the 
object of establishing the ideal of sexual 
" purity " as a condition of public life. As he 
retains his best qualities — faith in himself, wilful- 
ness, conscientious unscrupulousness — he can 
always make himself heard. Prominent among 
his ideals is an ideal of womanliness. In support 
of that ideal he will, like all idealists, make and 
believe any statement, however obviously and 
grotesquely unreal. When he found Marie 
Bashkirtseff's account of herself utterly incom- 
patible with the account of a woman's mind 
given to him by his ideal, he was confronted 
with the dilemma that either Marie was not a 

32 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

woman or else his ideal did not correspond to 
nature. He actually accepted the former alterna- 
tive. " Of the distinctively womanly," he says, 
"there is in her but little trace. She was the 
very antithesis of a true woman." Mr Stead's 
next difficulty was, that self-control, being a 
leading quality in his ideal, could not have been 
possessed by Marie : otherwise she would have 
been more like his ideal. Nevertheless he had 
to record that she, without any compulsion 
from circumstances, made herself a highly skilled 
artist by working ten hours a day for six years. 
Let anyone who thinks that this is no evi- 
dence of self-control just try it for six months. 
Mr Stead's verdict nevertheless, was " No self- 
control." However, his fundamental quarrel 
with Marie came out in the following lines. 
" Marie," he said, " was artist, musician, wit, 
philosopher, student, anything you like but a 
natural woman with a heart to love, and a soul 
to find its supreme satisfaction in sacrifice for 
lover or for child." Now of all the idealist 
abominations that make society pestiferous, I 
doubt if there be any so mean as that of forcing 
self-sacrifice on a woman under pretence that 
she likes it ; and, if she ventures to contradict 
the pretence, declaring her no true woman. In 
India they carried this piece of idealism to the 
length of declaring that a wife could not bear to 

TJie Womanly Woman. 33 

survive her husband, but would be prompted by 
her own faithful, loving, beautiful nature to offer 
up her life on the pyre which consumed his dead 
body. The astonishing thing is that women, 
sooner than be branded as unsexed wretches, 
allowed themselves to be stupefied with drink, 
and in that unwomanly condition burnt alive. 
British Philistinism put down widow idealizing 
with the strong hand ; and suttee is abolished in 
India. The English form of it still survives ; 
and Mr Stead, the rescuer of the children, is 
one of its high-priests. Imagine his feelings on 
coming across this entry in a woman's diary, 
" I love myself" Or this, " I swear solemnly 
— by the Gospels, by the passion of Christ, by 
MYSELF — that in four years I will be famous." 
The young woman was positively proposing to 
exercise for her own sake all the powers that 
were given her, in Mr Stead's opinion, solely 
that she might sacrifice them for her lover or 
child ! No wonder he is driven to exclaim 
again, " She was very clever, no doubt ; but 
woman she was not." Now observe this notable 
result. Marie Bashkirtseff, instead of being a 
less agreeable person than the ordinary female 
conformer to the ideal of womanliness, was 
conspicuously the reverse. Mr Stead himself 
wrote as one infatuated with her mere diary, 
and pleased himself by representing her as a 

34 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

person who fascinated everybody, and was a 
source of delight to all about her by the mere 
exhilaration and hope-giving atmosphere of her 
wilfulness. The truth is, that in real life a self- 
sacrificing woman, or, as Mr Stead would put it, 
a womanly woman, is not only taken advantage 
of, but disliked as well for her pains. No man 
pretends that his soul finds its supreme satisfac- 
tion in self-sacrifice : such an affectation would 
stamp him as a coward and weakling : the 
manly man is he who takes the Bashkirtseff 
view of himself. But men are not the less loved 
on this account. No one ever feels helpless by 
the side of the self-helper ; whilst the self- 
sacrificer is always a drag, a responsibility, a 
reproach, an ev-erlasting and unnatural trouble 
with whom no really strong soul can live. Only 
those who have helped themselves know how to 
help others, and to respect their right to help 

Although romantic idealists generally insist 
on self-surrender as an indispensable element in 
true womanly love, its repulsive effect is well- 
known and feared in practice by both sexes. 
The extreme instance is the reckless self-aban- 
donment seen in the infatuation of passionate 
sexual desire. Everyone who becomes the object 
of that infatuation shrinks from it instinctively. 
Love loses its charm when it is not free ; and 

The Womanly Woman. 35 

whether the compulsion is that of custom and 
law, or of infatuation, the effect is the same : it 
becomes valueless. The desire to give inspires 
no affection unless there is also the power to 
withhold ; and the successful wooer, in both 
sexes alike, is the one who can stand out for 
honourable conditions, and, failing them, go with- 
out. Such conditions are evidently not offered 
to either sex by the legal marriage of to-day ; 
for it is the intense repugnance inspired by the 
compulsory character of the legalized conjugal 
relation that leads, first to the idealization of mar- 
riage whilst it remains indispensable as a means 
of perpetuating society ; then to its modification 
by divorce and by the abolition of penalties for re- 
fusal to comply with judicial orders for restitution 
of conjugal rights; and finally to its disuse and 
disappearance as the responsibility for the main- 
tenance and education of the rising generation 
is shifted from the parent to the community.* 

■* A dissertation on the anomalies and impossibilities 
of the marriage law at its present stage would be too 
far out of the main course of my argument to be intro- 
duced in the text above ; but it may be well to point 
out in passing to those who regard marriage as an in- 
violable and inviolate institution, that necessity has 
already forced us to tamper with it to such an extent that 
at this moment the highest court in the kingdom is face to 
face with a husband and wife, the one demanding whether 
a woman may saddle him with all the responsibilities of a 

36 TJie Quintessence of Ibsemsni. 

Although the growing repugnance to face the 
Church of England marriage service has led 
many celebrants to omit those passages which 
frankly explain the object of the institution, we 
are not likely to dispense with legal ties and 
obligations, and trust wholly to the permanence 
of love, until the continuity of society no longer 
depends on the private nursery. Love, as a 
practical factor in society, is still a mere appetite. 
That higher development of it which Ibsen 
shews us occurring in the case of Rebecca West 
in Rosmersholm is only known to most of us by 
the descriptions of great poets, who themselves, 
as their biographies prove, have often known it, 
not by sustained experience, but only by brief 
glimpses. And it is never a first-fruit of their 

husband and then refuse to live with him, and the other 
asking whether the law allows her husband to commit 
abduction, imprisonment and rape upon her. If the court 
says Yes to the husband, marriage is made intolerable for 
men ; if it says Yes to the wife, marriage is made in- 
tolerable for women ; and as this exhausts the possible 
alternatives, it is clear that provision must be made for 
the dissolution of such marriages if the institution is to be 
maintained at all, which it must be until its social function 
is otherwise provided for. Marriage is thus, by force of 
circumstances, compelled to buy extension of life by 
extension of divorce, much as if a fugitive should try to 
delay a pursuing wolf by throwing portions of his own 
heart to it. 

The Womanly Woman. 37 

love affairs. Tannhauser may die in the con- 
viction that one moment of the emotion he felt 
with St Elizabeth was fuller and happier than 
all the hours of passion he spent with Venus ; 
but that does not alter the fact that love began 
for him with Venus, and that its earlier tentatives 
towards the final goal were attended with relapses. 
Now Tannhiiuser's passion for Venus is a develop- 
ment of the humdrum fondness of the bourgeois 
Jack for his Gill, a development at once higher 
and more dangerous, just as idealism is at once 
higher and more dangerous than Philistinism. 
The fondness is the germ of the passion : the 
passion is the germ of the more perfect love. 
When Blake told men that through excess they 
would learn moderation, he knew that the way 
for the present lay through the Venusberg, and 
that the race would assuredly not perish there as 
some individuals have, and as the Puritan fears 
we all shall unless we find a way round. Also 
he no doubt foresaw the time when our children 
would be born on the other side of it, and so be 
spared that fiery purgation. 

But the very facts that Blake is still commonly 
regarded as a crazy visionary, and that the 
current criticism of RosmersJiolm entirely fails 
even to notice the evolution of Rebecca's passion 
for Rosmer into her love for him, much more 
to credit the moral transfiguration which accom- 

38 The Qimitessence of Ihsenisifi. 

panics it, shew how absurd it would be to pre- 
tend, for the sake of edification, that the ordinary 
marriage of to-day is a union between a William 
Blake and a Rebecca West, or that it would be 
possible, even if it were enlightened policy, to 
deny the satisfaction of the sexual appetite to 
persons who have not reached that stage. An 
overwhelming majority of such marriages as 
are not purely de convenance^ are entered into 
for the gratification of that appetite either in 
its crudest form or veiled only by those ideal- 
istic illusions which the youthful imagination 
weaves so wonderfully under the stimulus of 
desire, and which older people indulgently laugh 
at. This being so, it is not surprising that our 
society, being directly dominated by men, comes 
to regard Woman, not as an end in herself 
like Man, but solely as a means of ministering 
to his appetite. The ideal wife is one who 
does everything that the ideal husband likes, 
and nothing else. Now to treat a person as 
a means instead of an end is to deny that 
person's right to live. And to be treated as a 
means to such an end as sexual intercourse with 
those who deny one's right to live is insufferable 
to any human being. Woman, if she dares face 
the fact that she is being so treated, must either 
loathe herself or else rebel. As a rule, when 
circumstances enable her to rebel successfully — 

TJie Womanly Woman. 39 

for instance, when the accident of genius enables 
her to "lose her character" without losing her 
employment or cutting herself off from the society 
she values — she does rebel ; but circumstances 
seldom do. Docs she then loathe herself? By 
no means : she deceives herself in the idealist 
fashion by denying that the love which her suitor 
offers her is tainted with sexual appetite at all. 
It is, she declares, a beautiful, disinterested, pure, 
sublime devotion to another by which a man's 
life is exalted and purified, and a woman's 
rendered blest. And of all the cynics, the 
filthiest to her mind is the one who sees, in the 
man making honourable proposals to his future 
wife, nothing but the human male seeking his 
female. The man himself keeps her confirmed 
in her illusion ; for the truth is unbearable to 
him too : he wants to form an affectionate tie, 
and not to drive a degrading bargain. After all, 
the germ of the highest love is in them both, 
though as yet it is no more than the appetite they 
are disguising so carefully from themselves. Con- 
sequently every stockbroker who has just brought 
his business up to marrying point woos in terms 
of the romantic illusion ; and it is agreed between 
the two that their marriage shall realize the 
romantic ideal. Then comes the breakdown of 
the plan. The young wife finds that her husband 
is neglecting her for his business ; that his 

40 The Quintessence of Ibsenisvi. 

interests, his activities, his whole life except that 
one part of it to which only a cynic ever referred 
before her marriage, lies away from home ; and 
that her business is to sit there and mope until 
she is wanted. Then what can she do? If she 
complains, he, the self-helper, can do without 
her ; whilst she is dependent on him for her 
position, her livelihood, her place in society, her 
home, her name, her very bread. All this is 
brought home to her by the first burst of dis- 
pleasure her complaints provoke. Fortunately, 
things do not remain for ever at this point — 
perhaps the most wretched in a woman's life. 
The self-respect she has lost as a wife she regains 
as a mother, in which capacity her use and im- 
portance to the community compare favourably 
with those of most men of business. She is 
wanted in the house, wanted in the market, 
wanted by the children ; and now, instead of 
weeping because her husband is away in the 
city, thinking of stocks and shares instead of 
his ideal woman, she would regard his presence 
in the house all day as an intolerable nuisance. 
And so, though she is completely disillusioned 
on the subject of ideal love, yet, since it has not 
turned out so badly after all, she countenances 
the illusion still from the point of view that it is 
a useful and harmless means of getting boys and 
girls to marry and settle down. And this con- 

The Womanly Woman. 41 

viction is the stronger in her because she feels 
that if she had known as much about marriage 
the day before her wedding as she did six months 
after, it would have been extremely hard to induce 
her to get married at all. 

This prosaic solution is satisfactory only within 
certain limits. It depends altogether upon the 
accident of the woman having some natural 
vocation for domestic management and the care 
of children, as well as on the husband being 
fairly good-natured and livable-with. Hence 
arises the idealist illusion that a vocation for 
domestic management and the care of children 
is natural to women, and that women who 
lack them are not women at all, but mem- 
bers of the third, or Bashkirtseff sex. Even 
if this were true, it is obvious that if the 
Bashkirtseffs are to be allowed to live, they have 
a right to suitable institutions just as much 
as men and women. But it is not true. 
The domestic career is no more natural to all 
women than the military career is natural to 
all men ; although it may be necessary that 
every able - bodied woman should be called 
on to risk her life in childbed just as it 
may be necessary that every man should be 
called on to risk his life in the battlefield. 
It is of course quite true that the majority of 
women are kind to children and prefer their 

42 The Quintessence of Ibsemsm 

own to other people's. But exactly the same 
thing is true of the majority of men, who never- 
theless do not consider that their proper sphere 
is the nursery. The case may be illustrated more 
grotesquely by the fact that the majority of 
women who have dogs, are kind to them, and 
prefer their own dogs to other people's ; yet it is 
not proposed that women should restrict their 
activities to the rearing of puppies. If we have 
come to think that the nursery and the kitchen 
are the natural sphere of a woman, we have 
done so exactly as English children come to 
think that a cage is the natural sphere of a 
parrot — because they have never seen one any- 
where else. No doubt there are Philistine parrots 
who agree with their owners that it is better to 
be in a cage than out, so long as there is plenty 
of hempseed and Indian corn there. There 
may even be idealist parrots who persuade them- 
selves that the mission of a parrot is to minister 
to the happiness of a private family by whistling 
and saying " Pretty Polly," and that it is in the 
sacrifice of its liberty to this altruistic pursuit 
that a true parrot finds the supreme satisfaction 
of its soul. I will not go so far as to affirm 
that there are theological parrots who are con- 
vinced that imprisonment is the will of God 
because it is unpleasant ; but I am confident 
that there are rationalist parrots who can demon- 

The Womanly Woman. 43 

strate that it would be a cruel kindness to let a 
parrot out to fall a prey to cats, or at least to 
forget its accomplishments and coarsen its natu- 
rally delicate fibres in an unprotected struggle 
for existence. Still, the only parrot a free- 
souled person can sympathize with is the one 
that insists on being let out as the first condition 
of its making itself agreeable. A selfish bird, 
you may say : one that puts its own gratification 
before that of the family which is so fond of it 
— before even the greatest happiness of the 
greatest number : one that, in aping the inde- 
pendent spirit of a man, has unparroted itself 
and become a creature that has neither the home- 
loving nature of a bird nor the strength and 
enterprise of a mastiff. All the same, you 
respect that parrot in spite of your conclusive 
reasoning ; and if it persists, you will have either 
to let it out or kill it. 

The sum of the matter is that unless Woman 
repudiates her womanliness, her duty to her hus- 
band, to her children, to society, to the law, and 
to everyone but herself, she cannot emancipate 
herself. But her duty to herself is no duty at 
all, since a debt is cancelled when the debtor 
and creditor are the same person. Its payment 
is simply a fulfilment of the individual will, upon 
which all duty is a restriction, founded on the 
conception of the will as naturally malign and 

44 The Quintessence of Ibsenisvi. 

devilish. Therefore Woman has to repudiate 
duty altogether. In that repudiation lies her 
freedom ; for it is false to say that Woman is 
now directly the slave of Man : she is the im- 
mediate slave of duty ; and as man's path to 
freedom is strewn with the wreckage of the 
duties and ideals he has trampled on, so must 
hers be. She may indeed mask her iconoclasm 
by proving in rationalist fashion, as Man has 
often done for the sake of a quiet life, that all 
these discarded idealist conceptions will be for- 
tified instead of shattered by her emancipation. 
To a person with a turn for logic, such proofs 
are as easy as playing the piano is to Paderewski. 
But it will not be true. A whole basketful of 
ideals of the most sacred quality will be smashed 
by the achievement of equality for women and 
men. Those who shrink from such a clatter and 
breakage may comfort themselves with the re- 
flection that the replacement of the broken goods 
will be prompt and certain. It is always a case 
of " The ideal is dead : long live the ideal ! " And 
the advantage of the work of destruction is, that 
every new ideal is less of an illusion than the 
one it has supplanted ; so that the destroyer of 
ideals, though denounced as an enemy of society, 
is in fact sweeping the world clear of lies. 

My digression is now over. Having traversed 

The Womanly Wonian. 45 

my loop as I promised, and come back to Man's 
repudiation of duty by way of Woman's, I may 
at last proceed to give some more particular 
account of Ibsen's work without further pre- 
occupation with Mr Clement Scott's protest, or 
the many others of which it is the type. For 
we now see that the pioneer must necessarily 
provoke such outcry as he repudiates duties, 
tramples on ideals, profanes what was sacred, 
sanctifies what was infamous, always driving his 
plough through gardens of pretty weeds in spite 
of the laws made against trespassers for the 
protection of the worms which feed on the roots, 
letting in light and air to hasten the putrefaction 
of decaying matter, and everywhere proclaiming 
that " the old beauty is no longer beautiful, the 
new truth no longer true." He can do no less ; 
and what more and what else he does it is not 
given to all of his generation to understand. 
And if any man does not understand, and cannot 
foresee the harvest, what can he do but cry out 
in all sincerity against such destruction, until at 
last we come to know the cry of the blind like 
any other street cry, and to bear with it as an 
honest cry, albeit a false alarm. 




WE are now prepared to learn without mis- 
giving that a typical Ibsen play is one 
in which the "leading lady" is an un- 
womanly woman, and the " villain " an idealist. 
It follows that the leading lady is not a heroine 
of the Drury Lane type ; nor does the villain 
forge or assassinate, since he is a villain by 
virtue of his determination to do nothing wrong. 
Therefore readers of Ibsen — not playgoers — have 
sometimes so far misconceived him as to suppose 
that his villains are examples rather than warn- 
ings, and that the mischief and ruin which attend 
their actions are but the tribulations from which 
the soul comes out purified as gold from the 
furnace. In fact, the beginning of Ibsen's Euro- 
pean reputation was the edification with which 
the pious of Scandinavia received his great dra- 
matic poem Brand. Brand the priest is an idealist 
of heroic earnestness, strength, and courage. He 

Brand. 47 

declares himself the champion, not of things as 
they are, nor of things as they can be made, but 
of things as they ought to be. Things as they 
ought to be mean for him things as ordered 
by men conformed to his ideal of the perfect 
Adam, who, again, is not man as he is or can be, 
but man conformed to all the ideals — man as it 
is his duty to be. In insisting on this conformity, 
Brand spares neither himself nor anyone else. 
Life is nothing : self is nothing : the perfect 
Adam is everything. The imperfect Adam does 
not fall in with these views. A peasant whom 
he urges to cross a glacier in a fog because it is 
his duty to visit his dying daughter, not only 
flatly declines, but endeavours forcibly to prevent 
Brand from risking his own life. Brand knocks 
him clown, and sermonizes him with fierce earnest- 
ness and scorn. Presently Brand has to cross a 
fiord in a storm to reach a dying man who, 
having committed a series of murders, wants 
" consolation " from a priest. Brand cannot go 
alone : someone must hold the rudder of his boat 
whilst he manages the sail. The fisher folk, in 
whom the old Adam is strong, do not adopt his 
estimate of the gravity of the situation, and re- 
fuse to go. A woman, fascinated by his heroism 
and idealism, goes. That ends in their marriage, 
and in the birth of a child to which they become 
deeply attached. Then Brand aspiring from 

48 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

height to height of devotion to his ideal, plunges 
from depth to depth of murderous cruelty. First 
the child must die from the severity of the climate 
because Brand must not flinch from the post of 
duty and leave his congregation exposed to the 
peril of getting an inferior preacher in his place. 
Then he forces his wife to give the clothes of the 
dead child to a gipsy whose baby needs them. 
The bereaved mother does not grudge the gift ; 
but she wants to hold back only one little gar- 
ment as a relic of her darling. But Brand sees 
in this reservation the imperfection of the im- 
perfect Eve. He forces her to regard the situa- 
tion as a choice between the relic and his ideal. 
She sacrifices the relic to the ideal, and then dies, 
broken-hearted. Having killed her, and thereby 
placed himself beyond ever daring to doubt the 
idealism upon whose altar he has immolated her 
— having also refused to go to his mother's death- 
bed because she compromises with his principles 
in disposing of her property, he is hailed by the 
people as a saint, and finds his newly built 
church too small for his congregation. So he calls 
upon them to follow him to worship God in His 
own temple, the mountains. After a brief prac- 
tical experience of this arrangement, they change 
their minds, and stone him. The very mountains 
themselves stone him, indeed ; for he is killed by 
an avalanche. 

Peer Gynt. 49 


Brand dies a saint, having caused more in- 
tense suffering by his saintliness than the most 
talented sinner could possibly have done with 
twice his opportunities. Ibsen does not leave 
this to be inferred. In another dramatic poem 
he gives us an accomplished rascal named Peer 
Gynt, an idealist who avoids Brand's errors by 
setting up as his ideal the realization of him- 
self by the utter satisfaction of his own will. 
In this he would seem to be on the path to 
which Ibsen himself points ; and indeed all 
who know the two plays will agree that whether 
or no it was better to be Peer Gynt than Brand, 
it was beyond all question better to be the 
mother or the sweetheart of Peer, scapegrace 
and liar as he was, than mother or wife to the 
saintly Brand. Brand would force his ideal on 
all men and women : Peer Gynt keeps his ideal 
for himself alone : it is indeed implicit in the 
ideal itself that it should be unique — that he 
alone should have the force to realize it. For 
Peer's first boyish notion of the self-realized 
man is not the saint, but the demigod whose in- 
domitable will is stronger than destiny, the 
fighter, the master, the man whom no woman 
can resist, the mighty hunter, the knight of a 
thousand adventures, — the model, in short, of 

50 The Quintessence of Ihsenisnt. 

the lover in a lady's novel, or the hero in a 
boy's romance. Now, no such person exists, 
or ever did exist, or ever can exist. The man 
who cultivates an indomitable will and refuses to 
make way for anything or anybody, soon finds 
that he cannot hold a street crossing against a 
tram car, much less a world against the whole 
human race. Only by plunging into illusions to 
which every fact gives the lie can he persuade 
himself that his will is a force that can overcome 
all other forces, or that it is less conditioned by 
circumstances than is a wheelbarrow. However, 
Peer Gynt, being imaginative enough to conceive 
his ideal, is also imaginative enough to find 
illusions to hide its unreality, and to persuade 
himself that Peer Gynt, the shabby countryside 
loafer, is Peer Gynt, Emperor of Himself, as he 
writes over the door of his hut in the mountains. 
His hunting feats are invented ; his military 
genius has no solider foundation than a street 
fight with a smith ; and his reputation as an adven- 
turous daredevil he has to gain by th£ bravado 
of carrying off the bride from a wedding at which 
the guests snub him. Only in the mountains 
can he enjoy his illusions undisturbed by ridicule : 
yet even in the mountains he finds obstacles 
which he cannot force his way through, obstacles 
which withstand him as spirits with voices, tell- 
ing him that he must go round. But he will 

Peer Gynt. 51 

not : he will go forward : he will cut his path 
sword in hand, in spite of fate. All the same, 
he has to go round ; for the world-will is 
without Peer Gynt as well as within him. 
Then he tries the supernatural, only to find that 
it means nothing more than the transmogrifying 
of squalid realities by lies and pretences. Still, 
like our amateurs of thaumaturgy, he is willing 
to enter into a conspiracy of make-believe up to 
a certain point. When the Trold king's daughter 
appears as a repulsive ragged creature riding on 
a pig, he is ready to accept her as a beautiful 
princess on a noble steed, on condition that she 
accepts his mother's tumble-down farmhouse, 
with the broken window panes stopped up with 
old clouts, as a splendid castle. He will go with 
her among the Trolds, and pretend that the grue- 
some ravine in which they hold their orgies is a 
glorious palace ; he will partake of their filthy 
food and declare it nectar and ambrosia ; he will 
applaud their obscene antics as exquisite dancing, 
and their discordant din as divine music ; but 
when they finally propose to slit his eyes so that 
he may see and hear these things, not as they 
are, but as he has been pretending to see and 
hear them, he draws back, resolved to be himself 
even in self-deception. He leaves the moun- 
tains and becomes a prosperous man of business 
in America, highly respectable and ready for 

52 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

any profitable speculation — slave trade, Bible 
trade, whisky trade, missionary trade, anything ! 
In this phase he takes to piety, and persuades 
himself, like Mr Stanley, that he is under the 
special care of God. This opinion is shaken by 
an adventure in which he is marooned on the 
African coast ; and it is not restored until the 
treacherous friends who marooned him are de- 
stroyed before his eyes by the blowing-up of the 
steam yacht they have just stolen from him, 
when he utters his celebrated exclamation, " Ah, 
God is a Father to me after all ; but economical 
he certainly is not." He finds a white horse 
in the desert, and is accepted on its account as 
the Messiah by an Arab tribe, a success which 
moves him to declare that now at last he is 
really worshipped for himself, whereas in Ame- 
rica people only respected his breast-pin, the 
symbol of his money. In commerce, too, he 
reflects, his eminence was a mere matter of 
chance, whilst as a prophet he is eminent by 
pure natural fitness for the post. This is ended 
by his falling in love with a dancing-girl, who, 
after leading him into every sort of undignified 
and ludicrous extravagance, ranging from his 
hailing her as the Eternal-Feminine of Goethe to 
the more practical folly of giving her his white 
horse and all his prophetic finery, runs away with 
the spoil, and leaves him once more helpless and 

Peer Gynt. 53 

alone in the desert. He wanders until he comes 
to the great Sphinx, beside which he finds a 
German gentleman in great perplexity as to who 
the Sphinx is. Peer Gynt, seeing in that im- 
passive, immovable, majestic figure, a symbol of 
his own ideal, is able to tell the German gentle- 
man at once that the Sphinx is itself. This 
explanation dazzles the German, who, after some 
further discussion of the philosophy of self- 
realization, invites Peer Gynt to accompany him 
to a club of learned men in Cairo, who are ripe 
for enlightenment on this very question. Peer, 
delighted, accompanies the German to the club, 
which turns out to be a madhouse in which the 
lunatics have broken loose and locked up their 
keepers. It is in this madhouse, and by these 
madmen, that Peer Gynt is at last crowned 
Emperor of Himself He receives their homage 
as he lies in the dust fainting with terror. 

As an old man, Peer Gynt, returning to the 
scenes of his early adventures, is troubled with 
the prospect of meeting a certain button moulder 
who threatens to make short work of his realized 
self by melting it down into buttons in his 
crucible with a heap of other button-material. 
Immediately the old exaltation of the self-realizer 
is changed into an unspeakable dread of the 
button-moulder Death, to avoid whom Peer 
Gynt will commit any act, even to pushing a 

54 The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

drowning man from the spar he is cHnging to in 
a shipwreck lest it should not suffice to support 
two. At last he finds a deserted sweetheart of 
his youth still waiting for him and still believing 
in him. In the imagination of this old woman 
he finds the ideal Peer Gynt ; whilst in himself, 
the loafer, the braggart, the confederate of sham 
magicians, the Charleston speculator, the false 
prophet, the dancing-girl's dupe, the bedlam 
emperor, the selfish thruster of the drowning man 
into the waves, there is nothing heroic — nothing 
but commonplace self-seeking and shirking, 
cowardice and sensuality, veiled only by the 
romantic fancies of the born liar. With this 
crowningly unreal realization he is left to face the 
button-moulder as best he can. 

Peer Gynt has puzzled a good many people by 
Ibsen's fantastic and subtle treatment of its 
thesis. It is so far a difficult play, that the ideal 
of unconditional self-realization, however familiar 
its suggestions may be to the ambitious reader, 
is not at all understood by him, much less for- 
mulated as a proposition in metaphysics. When 
it is stated to him by some one who does under- 
stand it, he unhesitatingly dismisses it as idiotic ; 
and it is because he is perfectly right in doing 
so — because it is idiotic in the most accurate 
sense of the term — that he finds such difficulty 
in recognizing it as the common ideal of his 

Peer Gynt. 55 

own prototype, the pushing, competitive, success- 
loving man who is the hero of the modern world. 
There is nothing novel in Ibsen's dramatic 
method of reducing these ideals to absurdity. 
Exactly as Cervantes took the old ideal of 
chivalry, and shewed what came of a man attempt- 
ing to act as if it were real, so Ibsen takes the 
ideals of Brand and Peer Gynt, and treats them 
in the very same manner. Don Quixote acts as 
if he were a perfect knight in a world of giants and 
distressed damsels instead of a country gentle- 
man in a land of innkeepers and farm wenches ; 
Brand acts as if he were the perfect Adam in a 
world where, by resolute rejection of all com- 
promise with imperfection, it was immediately 
possible to change the rainbow " bridge between 
flesh and spirit " into as enduring a structure as 
the tower of Babel was intended to be, thereby 
restoring man to the condition in which he 
walked with God in the garden ; and Peer Gynt 
tries to act as if he had in him a special force 
that could be concentrated so as to prevail 
over all other forces. They ignore the real — 
ignore what they are and where they are, not 
only, like Nelson, shutting their eyes to the 
signals that a brave man may disregard, but in- 
sanely steering straight on the rocks that no 
resolution can prevail against. Observe that 
neither Cervantes nor Ibsen is incredulous, in the 

$6 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

Philistine way, as to the power of ideals over 
men. Don Quixote, Brand, and Peer Gynt are, 
all three, men of action seeking to realize their 
ideals in deeds. However ridiculous Don Quix- 
ote makes himself, you cannot dislike or despise 
him, much less think that it would have been 
better for him to have been a Philistine like 
Sancho ; and Peer Gynt, selfish rascal as he is, 
is not unlovable. Brand, made terrible by the 
consequences of his idealism to others, is heroic. 
Their castles in the air are more beautiful than 
castles of brick and mortar ; but one cannot live 
in them ; and they seduce men into pretending 
that every hovel is such a castle, just as Peer 
Gynt pretended that the Trold king's den was a 

When Ibsen, by merely giving the rein to the 
creative impulse of his poetic nature, had pro- 
duced Bi'and and Peer Gynt, he was nearly forty. 
His will, in setting his imagination to work, had 
produced a great puzzle for his intellect. In no 
case does the difference between the will and the 
intellect come out more clearly than in that of 
the poet, save only that of the lover. Had Ibsen 
died in 1867, he, like many another great poet, 
would have gone to his grave without having 
ever rationally understood his own meaning. 

Emperor and Galilean. 57 

Nay, if in that year an intellectual expert — a 
commentator, as we call him — had gone to Ibsen 
and offered him the explanation of Brand which 
he himself must have arrived at before he con- 
structed Ghosts and The Wild Duck, he would 
perhaps have repudiated it with as much disgust 
as a maiden would feel if anyone were brutal 
enough to give her the physiological rationale of 
her dreams of meeting a fairy prince. It is 
only the naif who goes to the creative artist with 
absolute confidence in receiving an answer to 
his " What does this passage mean ? " That is 
the very question which the poet's own intellect, 
which had no part in the conception of the poem, 
may be asking him. And this curiosity of the 
intellect — this restless life in it which differen- 
tiates it from dead machinery, and which troubles 
our lesser artists but little, is one of the marks 
of the greater sort. Shakespear, in Hamlet, made 
a drama of the self-questioning that came upon 
him when his intellect rose up in alarm, as well 
it might, against the vulgar optimism of his Henry 
F., and yet could mend it to no better purpose 
than by the equally vulgar pessimism of Troilus 
and Cressida, Dante took pains to understand 
himself: so did Goethe. Richard Wagner, one 
of the greatest poets of our own day, has left us 
as many volumes of criticism of art and life as 
he has left musical scores ; and he has expressly 

5 8 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

described how the intellectual activity which he 
brought to the analysis of his music dramas was 
in abeyance during their creation. Just so do 
we find Ibsen, after composing his two great dra- 
matic poems, entering on a struggle to become 
intellectually conscious of what he had done. 

We have seen that with Shakespear such an 
effort became itself creative and produced a 
drama of questioning. With Ibsen the same 
thing occurred : he harked back to an abandoned 
project of his, and wrote two huge dramas on the 
subject of the apostasy of the Emperor Julian. 
In this work we find him at first preoccupied 
with a piece of old-fashioned freethinking — the 
dilemma that moral responsibility presupposes 
free-will, and that free-will sets man above God. 
Cain, who slew because he willed, willed because 
he must, and must have willed to slay because 
he was himself, comes upon the stage to claim 
that murder is fertile, and death the ground of 
life, though he cannot say what is the ground 
of death. Judas, who betrayed under the same 
necessity, wants to know whether, since the 
Master chose him, he chose him foreknowingly. 
This part of the drama has no very deep signi- 
ficance. It is easy to invent conundrums which 
dogmatic evangelicalism cannot answer ; and no 
doubt, whilst it was still a nine days' wonder that 
evangelicalism could not solve all enigmas, such 

Emperor and Galilean. 59 

invention seemed something much deeper than 
the mere intellectual chess-play which it is seen 
to be now that the nine days are past. In his 
occasional weakness for such conundrums, and 
later on in his harping on the hereditary trans- 
mission of disease, we see Ibsen's active intellect 
busy, not only with the problems peculiar to his 
own plays, but with the fatalism and pessimism 
of the middle of our century, when the typical 
advanced culture was attainable by reading 
Strauss's Leben Jesu, the popularizations of 
Helmholtz and Darwin by Tyndall and Hux- 
ley, and George Eliot's novels, vainly protested 
against by Ruskin as peopled with " the sweep- 
ings of a Pentonville omnibus." The traces of 
this period in Ibsen's writings show how well he 
knew the crushing weight with which the sordid 
cares of the ordinary struggle for money and 
respectability fell on the world when the romance 
of the creeds was discredited, and progress 
seemed for the moment to mean, not the growth 
of the spirit of man, but an effect of the sur- 
vival of the fittest brought about by the destruc- 
tion of the unfit, all the most frightful examples 
of this systematic destruction being thrust into 
the utmost prominence by those who were fight- 
ing the Church with Mill's favourite dialectical 
weapon, the incompiatibility of divine omnipo- 
tence with divine benevolence. His plays are 

6o The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

full of evidence of his overwhelming sense of 
the necessity for rousing the individual into 
self-assertion against this numbing fatalism; 
and yet he never seems to have freed his 
intellect wholly from an acceptance of its scien- 
tific validity. That it only accounted for pro- 
gress at all on the hypothesis of a continuous 
increase in the severity of the conditions of 
existence, — that is, on an assumption of just the 
reverse of what was actually taking place — 
appears to have escaped Ibsen as completely 
as it has escaped Professor Huxley himself It 
is true that he did not allow himself to be 
stopped by this gloomy fortress of pessimism 
and materialism : his genius pushed him past 
it, but without intellectually reducing it ; and 
the result is, that as far as one can guess, he 
believes to this day that it is impregnable, not 
dreaming that it has been demolished, and that 
too with ridiculous ease, by the mere march 
behind him of the working class, which, by its 
freedom from the characteristic bias of the middle 
classes, has escaped their characteristic illusions, 
and solved many of the enigmas which they 
found insoluble because they wished to find them 
so. His prophetic belief in the spontaneous 
growth of the will makes him a meliorist with- 
out reference to the operation of natural selec- 
tion ; but his impression of the light thrown by 

Emperor and Galilean. 6i 

physical and biological science on the facts of 
life seems to be the gloomy one of the period 
at which he must have received his education in 
these departments. External nature often plays 
her most ruthless and destructive part in his 
works, which have an extraordinary fascination 
for the pessimists of that school, in spite of the 
incompatibility of his individualism with that 
mechanical utilitarian ethic of theirs which treats 
Man as the sport of every circumstance, and 
ignores his will altogether. 

Another inessential but very prominent feature 
in Ibsen's dramas will be understood easily by 
anyone who has observed how a change of re- 
ligious faith intensifies our concern about our 
own salvation. An ideal, pious or secular, is 
practically used as a standard of conduct ; and 
whilst it remains unquestioned, the simple rule 
of right is to conform to it. In the theological 
stage, when the Bible is accepted as the reve- 
lation of God's will, the pious man, when in 
doubt as to whether he is acting rightly or 
wrongly, quiets his migivings by searching the 
Scripture until he finds a text which endorses 
his action.* The rationalist, for whom the Bible 

■* As such misgivings seldom arise except when the 
conscience revolts against the contemplated action, an 
appeal to Scripture to justify a point of conduct is gene- 
rally found in practice to be an attempt to excuse a crime. 

62 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

has no authority, brings his conduct to such 
tests as asking himself, after Kant, how it would 
be if everyone did as he proposes to do ; or 
by calculating the effect of his action on the 
greatest happiness of the greatest number ; or 
by judging whether the liberty of action he is 
claiming infringes the equal liberty of others, 
&c. &c. Most men are ingenious enough to 
pass examinations of this kind successfully in 
respect to everything they really want to do. 
But in periods of transition, as, for instance, 
when faith in the infallibility of the Bible is 
shattered, and faith in that of reason not yet 
perfected, men's uncertainty as to the right- 
ness and wrongness of their actions keeps them 
in a continual perplexity, amid which casuistry 
seems the most important branch of intellectual 
activity. Life, as depicted by Ibsen, is very 
full of it. We find the great double drama of 
Emperor and Galilean occupied at first with 
Julian's case regarded as a case of conscience. 
It is compared, in the manner already described, 
with the cases of Cain and Judas, the three 
men being introduced as "corner stones under 
the wrath of necessity," "great freedmen under 
necessity," and so forth. The qualms of Julian 
are theatrically effective in producing the most 
exciting suspense as to whether he will dare 
to choose between Christ and the imperial purple ; 

Emperor and Galilean. 63 

but the mere exhibition of a man struggling 
between his ambition and his creed belongs to a 
phase of intellectual interest which Ibsen had 
passed even before the production of Brandy 
when he wrote his Kongs Emnerne or The Pre- 
tenders. Emperor and Galilea7i might have been 
appropriately, if prosaically, named The Mistake 
of Maximns the Mystic. It is Maximus who 
forces the choice on Julian, not as between 
ambition and principle — between Paganism and 
Christianity — between " the old beauty that is 
no longer beautiful and the new truth that is no 
longer true," but between Christ and Julian 
himself. Maximus knows that there is no going 
back to " the first empire " of pagan sensual- 
ism. " The second empire," Christian or self- 
abnegatory idealism, is already rotten at heart. 
" The third empire " is what he looks for — the 
empire of Man asserting the eternal validity 
of his own will. He who can see that not on 
Olympus, not nailed to the cross, but in him- 
self is God : he is the man to build Brand's 
bridge between the flesh and the spirit, establish- 
ing this third empire in which the spirit shall 
not be unknown, nor the flesh starved, nor the 
will tortured and baffled. Thus throughout the 
first part of the double drama we have Julian 
prompted step by step to the stupendous convic- 
tion that he and not the Galilean is God. His 

64 The Qiiintesse)ice of Ibsenism. 

final resolution to seize the throne is expressed 
in his interruption of the Lord's prayer, which he 
hears intoned by worshippers in church as he 
wrestles in the gloom of the catacombs with his 
own fears and the entreaties and threats of his 
soldiers urging him to take the final decisive 
step. At the cue " Lead us not into temptation ; 
but deliver us from evil " he rushes to the church 
with his soldiers, exclaiming " For mine is the 
kingdom." Yet he halts on the threshold, dazzled 
by the light, as his follower Sallust points the 
declaration by adding, — *' and the kingdom, and 
the power, and the glory." 

Once on the throne Julian becomes a mere 
pedant-tyrant, trying to revive Paganism mecha- 
nically by cruel enforcement of external confor- 
mity to its rites. In his moments of exaltation 
he half grasps the meaning of Maximus, only to 
relapse presently and pervert it into a grotesque 
mixture of superstition and monstrous vanity. 
We have him making such speeches as this, 
worthy of Peer Gynt at his most ludicrous. 
" Has not Plato long ago enunciated the truth 
that only a god can rule over men ? What did 
he mean by that saying? Answer me: what 
did he mean ? Far be it from me to assert that 
Plato — incomparable sage though he was — had 
any individual, even the greatest, in his prophetic 
eye," &c. In this frame of mind Christ appears 

Emperor and Galilean. 65 

to him, not as the prototype of himself, as 
Maximus would have him feel, but as a rival god 
over whom he must prevail at all costs. It galls 
him to think that the Galilean still reigns in the 
hearts of men whilst the emperor can only extort 
lip honour from them by brute force ; for in his 
wildest excesses of egotism he never so loses 
his saving sense of the realities of things as to 
mistake the trophies of persecution for the fruits 
of faith. " Tell me who shall conquer," he 
demands of Maximus, " — the emperor or the 

" Both the emperor and the Galilean shall 
succumb," says Maximus. "Whether in our 
time or in hundreds of years I know not ; but 
so it shall be when the right man comes." 

"Who is the right man?" says Julian. 

" He who shall swallow up both emperor and 
Galilean," replies the seer. " Both shall succumb ; 
but you shall not therefore perish. Does not the 
child succumb in the youth and the youth in the 
man : yet neither child nor youth perishes. You 
know I have never approved of your policy as 
emperor. You have tried to make the youth a 
child again. The empire of the flesh is fallen a 
prey to the empire of the spirit. But the empire 
of the spirit is not final, any more than the youth 
is. You have tried to hinder the youth from 
growing — from becoming a man. Oh fool, who 

66 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

have drawn your sword against that which is to 
be — against the third empire, in which the twin- 
natured shall reign. For him the Jews have a 
name. They call him Messiah, and are waiting 
for him." 

Still Julian stumbles on the threshold of the 
idea without entering into it. He is galled out 
of all comprehension by the rivalry of the 
Galilean, and asks despairingly who shall break 
his power. Then Maximus drives the lesson 

Maximus. — Is it not written, " Thou shalt have none 
other gods but me " ? 

Julian. — Yes— yes — yes. 

Maximus. — The seer of Nazareth did not preach this 
god or that : he said " God is I : I am God." 

Julian.— And that is what makes the emperor power- 
less. The third empire ? The Messiah ? Not the Jews' 
Messiah, but the Messiah of the two empires, the spirit 
and the world — ? 

Maximus. — The God-Emperor. 

Julian. — The Emperor-God. 

Maximus. — Logos in Pan, Pan in Logos. 

Julian. — How is he begotten t 

Maximus. — He is self-begotten in the man who wills. 

But it is of no use. Maximus's idea is a syn- 
thesis of relations in which not only is Christ 
God in exactly the same sense as that in which 
Julian is God, but Julian is Christ as well. The 
persistence of Julian's jealousy of the Galilean 
shews that he has not comprehended the syn- 

Emperor and Galilean. 6y 

thesis at all, but only seized on that part of it 
which flatters his own egotism. And since this 
part is only valid as a constituent of the syn- 
thesis, and has no reality when isolated from it, 
it cannot by itself convince Julian. In vain does 
Maximus repeat his lesson in every sort of 
parable, and in such pregnant questions as 
" How do you know, Julian, that you were not 
in him whom you now persecute ? " He can 
only wreak him to utter commands to the winds, 
and to exclaim, in the excitement of burning his 
fleet on the borders of Persia, " The third empire 
is here, Maximus. I feel that the Messiah of the 
earth lives within me. The spirit has become 
flesh and the flesh spirit. All creation lies within 
my will and power. More than the fleet is 
burning. In that glowing, swirling pyre the 
crucified Galilean is burning to ashes ; and the 
earthly emperor is burning with the Galilean. 
But from the ashes shall arise, phoenix-like, the 
God of earth and the Emperor of the spirit in 
one, in one, in one." At which point he is in- 
formed that the Persian refugee whose informa- 
tion has emboldened him to burn his ships, has 
fled from the camp and is a manifest spy. From 
that moment he is a broken man. In his next 
and last emergency, when the Persians fall upon 
his camp, his first desperate exclamation is a vow 
to sacrifice to the gods. " To what gods, oh 

68 TJie Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

fool ? " cries Maximus. " Where are they ; and 
what are they ? " "I will sacrifice to this god 
and that god — I will sacrifice to many," he 
answers desperately. " One or other must surely 
hear me. / must call on sonie'Jiing zvitJiout me 
and above me'' A Hash of lightning seems to him 
a response from above ; and with this encourage- 
ment he throws himself into the fight, clinging, 
like Macbeth, to an ambiguous oracle which leads 
him to suppose that only in the Phrygian regions 
need he fear defeat. He imagines he sees the 
Nazarene in the ranks of the enemy ; and in 
fighting madly to reach him he is struck down, 
in the name of Christ, by one of his own soldiers. 
Then his one Christian general, Jovian, calls on 
his " believing brethren " to give Cresar what is 
Caesar's. Declaring that the heavens are open 
and the angels coming to the rescue with their 
swords of fire, he rallies the Galileans of whom 
Julian has made slave-soldiers. The pagan free 
legions, crying out that the god of the Galileans 
is on the Roman side, and that he is the 
strongest, follow Jovian as he charges the enemy, 
who fly in all directions whilst Julian, sinking 
back from a vain effort to rise, exclaims, " Thou 
hast conquered, oh Galilean." 

Julian dies quietly in his tent, averring, in 
reply to a Christian friend's inquiry, that he has 
nothing to repent of " The power which circum- 

Emperor and Galilean. 6g 

stances placed in my hands," he says, "and 
which is an emanation of divinity, I am con- 
scious of having used to the best of my skill. I 
have never wittingly wronged anyone. If some 
should think that I have not fulfilled all expecta- 
tions, they should in justice reflect that there is a 
mysterious pov/er outside us, which in a great 
measure governs the issue of human undertak- 
ings." He still does not see eye to eye with 
Maximus, though there is a flash of insight in his 
remark to him, when he learns that the village 
where he fell is called the Phrygian region, that 
" the world-will has laid an ambush for him." 
It was something for Julian to have seen that 
the power which he found stronger than his 
individual will was itself will ; but inasmuch as 
he conceived it, not as the whole of which his 
will was but a part, but as a rival will, he was 
not the man to found the third empire. He had 
felt the godhead in himself, but not in others. 
Being only able to say, with half conviction, 
" The kingdom of heaven is within ME," he 
had been utterly vanquished by the Galilean 
who had been able to say, " The kingdom of 
heaven is within YOU." But he was on the 
way to that full truth. A man cannot believe 
in others until he believes in himself; for his 
conviction of the equal worth of his fellows must 
be filled by the overflow of his conviction of his 

70 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

own worth. Against the spurious Christianity 
of asceticism, starving that indispensable prior 
conviction, JuHan rightly rebelled ; and Maximus 
rightly incited him to rebel. But Maximus 
could not fill the prior conviction even to fulness, 
much less to overflowing ; for the third empire 
was not yet, and is not yet. Still the tyrant dies 
with a peaceful conscience ; and Maximus is 
able to tell the priest at the bedside that the 
world-will shall answer for Julian's soul. What 
troubles the mystic is his having misled Julian 
by encouraging him to bring upon himself the 
fate of Cain and Judas. As water can be boiled 
by fire, man can be prompted and stimulated 
from without to assert his individuality ; but just 
as no boiling can fill a half-empty well, no 
external stimulus can enlarge the spirit of man 
to the point at which he can self-beget the 
Emperor-God in himself by willing. At that 
point " to will is to have to will " ; and it is with 
these words on his lips that Maximus leaves the 
stage, still sure that the third empire is to come. 
It is not necessary to translate the scheme of 
Emperor and Galilean into terms of the anti- 
thesis between idealism and realism. Julian, 
in this respect, is a reincarnation of Peer Gynt. 
All the difference is that the subject which was 
instinctively projected in the earlier poem, is 
intellectually constructed as well in the later 

Emperor and Galilean. 71 

history, Julian plus Maximus the Mystic being 
Peer plus one who understands him better than 
Ibsen did when he created him. The current 
interest of Ibsen's interpretation of original 
Christianity is obvious. The deepest sayings 
recorded in the gospels are now nothing but 
eccentric paradoxes to most of those who reject 
the superstitious view of Christ's divinity. Those 
who accept that view often consider that such 
acceptance absolves them from attaching any 
sensible meaning to his words at all, and so 
might as well pin their faith to a stock or stone. 
Of these attitudes the first is superficial, and the 
second stupid. Ibsen's interpretation, whatever 
may be its validity, will certainly hold the field 
long after the current " Crosstianity," as it has 
been aptly called, becomes unthinkable. 

Ibsen had now written three immense dramas, 
all dealing with the effect of idealism on in- 
dividual egotists of exceptional imaginative 
excitability. This he was able to do whilst his 
intellectual consciousness of his theme was yet 
incomplete, by simply portraying sides of him- 
self. He has put himself into the skin of Brand, 
of Peer Gynt, and of Julian ; and these figures 
have accordingly a certain direct vitality which 
belongs to none of his subsequent creations of 
the male sex. There are flashes of it in Rell- 

72 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

ing, in Lovborg, in Ellida's stranger from the 
sea ; but they are only flashes : henceforth all 
his really vivid and solar figures are women. 
For, having at last completed his intellectual 
analysis of idealism, he could now construct 
methodical illustrations of its social working, in- 
stead of, as before, blindly projecting imaginary 
personal experiences which he himself had not 
yet succeeded in interpreting. Further, now that 
he understood the matter, he could see plainly the 
effect of idealism as a social force on people quite 
unlike himself : that is to say, on everyday people 
in everyday life — on shipbuilders, bank man- 
agers, parsons, and doctors, as well as on saints, 
romantic adventurers, and emperors. With his 
eyes thus opened, instances of the mischief of 
idealism crowded upon him so rapidly that he 
began deliberately to inculcate their moral by 
writing realistic prose plays of modern life, aban- 
doning all production of art for art's sake. His 
skill as a playwright and his genius as an artist 
were thenceforth used only to secure attention 
and effectiveness for his detailed attack on 
idealism. No more verse, no more tragedy for 
the sake of tears or comedy for the sake of 
laughter, no more seeking to produce specimens 
of art forms in order that literary critics might 
fill the public belly with the east wind. The 
critics, it is true, soon declared that he had 

The League of Youth. y^ 

ceased to be an artist ; but he, having something 
else to do with his talent than to fulfil critics' 
definitions, took no notice of them, not thinking 
their ideal sufficiently important to write a play 


The first of the series of realistic prose plays 
is called Pillars of Society ; but before describ- 
ing this, a word must be said about a previous 
work which seems to have determined the form 
which the later series took. Between Peer Gynt 
and Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen had let fall an 
amusing comedy called The League of Youth 
{De Unges Forbund) in which the imaginative 
egotist reappears farcically as an ambitious 
young lawyer-politician who, smarting under a 
snub from a local landowner and county mag- 
nate, relieves his feelings with such a passionate 
explosion of Radical eloquence that he is cheered 
to the echo by the progressive party. Intoxi- 
cated with this success, he imagines himself a 
great leader of the people and a wielder of the 
mighty engine of democracy. He narrates to a 
friend a dream in which he saw kings swept 
helplessly over the surface of the earth by a 
mighty wind. He has hardly achieved this im- 
promptu when he receives an invitation to dine 
with the local magnate, whose friends, to spare 

74 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

his feelings, have misled him as to the person 
aimed at in the new demagogue's speech. The 
invitation sets the egotist's imagination on the 
opposite tack : he is presently pouring forth 
his soul in the magnate's drawing-room to the 
very friend to whom he related the great dream. 
" My goal is this : in the course of time I shall get into 
Parliament, pediaps into the Ministry, and marry happily 
into a rich and honourable family. I intend to reach it by 
my own exertions. I must and shall reach it without help 
from anyone. Meanwhile I shall enjoy life here, drink- 
ing in beauty and sunshine. Here there are fine manners : 
life moves gracefully here : the very floors seem laid to be 
trodden only by lacquered shoes : the arm chairs are deep ; 
and the ladies sink exquisitely into them. Here the con- 
versation goes lightly and elegantly, like a game at battle- 
dore ; and no blunders come plumping in to make an 
awkward silence. Here I feel for the first time what dis- 
tinction means. Yes : we have indeed an aristocracy of 
culture ; and to it I will belong. Dont you yourself feel 
the refining influence of the place," &c. &c. 

For the rest, the play is an ingenious comedy 
of intrigue, clever enough in its mechanical con- 
struction to entitle the French to claim that 
Ibsen owes something to his technical education 
as a playwright in the school of Scribe, although 
it is hardly necessary to add that the difference 
between The League of Youth and the typical 
'* well made play " of Scribe is like the difference 
between a human being and a marionette. One 
or two episodes in the last two acts contain the 

Pillars of Society. 75 

germs of later plays ; and it was the suitability 
of the realistic prose comedy form to these 
episodes that no doubt confirmed Ibsen in his 
choice of it. Therefore The League of Youth 
would stand as the first of the realistic plays in 
any classification which referred to form alone. 
In a classification by content, with which we are 
here alone concerned, it must stand in its 
chronological place as a farcical member of the 
group of heroic plays beginning with The Pre- 
tenders and ending with Emperor and Galilean. 

Pillars of Society^ then, is the first play in 
which Ibsen writes as one who has intellectually 
mastered his own didactic purpose, and no longer 
needs to project himself into his characters. It 
is the history of one Karsten Bernick, a " pillar of 
society " who, in pursuance of the duty of main- 
taining the respectability of his father's famous 
firm of shipbuilders (to shatter which would be 
to shatter one of the ideals of commercial society 
and to bring abstract respectability into dis- 
repute), has averted a disgraceful exposure by 
allowing another man to bear the discredit not 
only of a love affair in which he himself had 
been the sinner, but of a theft which was never 
committed at all, having been merely alleged as 
an excuse for the firm being out of funds at a 

y6 The Quintesse7tce of Ibsenisni. 

critical period. Bernick is an abject slave to the 
idealizings of a certain schoolmaster Rorlund 
about respectability, duty to society, good exam- 
ple, social influence, health of the community, 
and so on. When he falls in love with a married 
actress, he feels that no man has a right to 
shock the feelings of Rorlund and the commu- 
nity for his own selfish gratification ? However, 
a clandestine intrigue will shock nobody, since 
nobody need know of it. He accordingly adopts 
this method of satisfying himself and preserving 
the moral tone of the community at the same 
time. Unluckily, the intrigue is all but dis- 
covered ; and Bernick has either to see the 
moral security of the community shaken to its 
foundations by the terrible scandal of his ex- 
posure, or else to deny what he did and put 
it on another man. As the other man happens 
to be going to America, where he can easily 
conceal his imputed shame, Bernick's conscience 
tells him that it would be little short of a 
crime against society to neglect such an oppor- 
tunity ; and he accordingly lies his way back 
into the good opinion of Rorlund and company 
at the emigrant's expense. There are three 
women in the play for whom the schoolmaster's 
ideals have no attractions. First, there is the 
actress's daughter, who wants to get to America 
because she hears that people there are not good ; 

Pillars of Society. 77 

and she is heartily tired of good people, since it 
is part of their goodness to look down on her 
because of her mother's disgrace. The school- 
master, to whom she is engaged, condescends 
to her for the same reason. The second has 
already sacrified her happiness and wasted her 
life in conforming to Mr Stead's ideal of woman- 
liness ; and she earnestly advises the younger 
woman not to commit that folly, but to break 
her engagement with the schoolmaster, and 
elope promptly with the man she loves. The 
third is a naturally free woman who has 
snapped her fingers at the current ideals all her 
life ; and it is her presence that at last encourages 
the liar to break with the ideals by telling the 
truth about himself The comic personage of 
the piece is a useless hypochondriac whose 
function in life, as described by himself, is " to 
hold up the banner of the ideal." This he does 
by sneering at everything and everybody for not 
resembling the heroic incidents and characters 
he reads about in novels and tales of adventure. 
But in his obvious peevishness and folly, 
he is much less dangerous than the pious 
idealist, the earnest and respectable Rorlund. 
The play concludes with Bernick's admission 
that the spirits of Truth and Freedom are the 
true pillars of society, a phrase which sounds so 
like an idealistic commonplace that it is necessary 

yS The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

to add that Truth in this passage does not mean 
the nursery convention of truth-telling satirized 
by Ibsen himself in a later play, as well as by 
Labiche and other comic dramatists. It means 
the unflinching recognition of facts, and the 
abandonment of the conspiracy to ignore such 
of them as do not bolster up the ideals. The 
idealist rule as to truth dictates the recogni- 
tion only of those facts or idealistic masks of 
facts which have a respectable air, and the 
mentioning of these on all occasions and at all 
hazards. Ibsen urges the recognition of all 
facts ; but as to mentioning them, he wrote a 
whole play, as we shall see presently, to shew 
that you must do that at your own peril, and 
that a truth-teller who cannot hold his tongue on 
occasion may do as much mischief as a whole 
university full of trained liars. The word 
Freedom, I need hardly say, means freedom 
from slavery to the Rorlund ideals. 


Unfortunately, Pillars of Society, as a pro- 
pagandist play, is disabled by the circumstance 
that the hero, being a fraudulent hypocrite in 
the ordinary police-court sense of the phrase, is 
not accepted as a typical pillar of society by the 
class which he represents. Accordingly, Ibsen 
took care next time to make his idealist irre- 

A DolVs House. 79 

proachable from the standpoint of the ordinary 
idealist moraHty. In the famous DolFs House, 
the pillar of society who owns the doll is a 
model husband, father, and citizen. In his little 
household, with the three darling children and 
the affectionate little wife, all on the most loving 
terms with one another, we have the sweet home, 
the womanly woman, the happy family life of the 
idealist's dream. Mrs Nora Helmer is happy in 
the belief that she has attained a valid realiza- 
tion of all these illusions — that she is an ideal 
wife and mother, and that Helmer is an ideal 
husband who would, if the necessity arose, give 
his life to save her reputation. A {g.\v simply 
contrived incidents disabuse her effectually on all 
these points. One of her earliest acts of devo- 
tion to her husband has been the secret raising 
of a sum of money to enable him to make a tour 
which was necessary to restore his health. As 
he would have broken down sooner than go into 
debt, she has had to persuade him that the money 
was a gift from her father. It was really obtained 
from a moneylender, who refused to make her 
the loan unless she induced her father to endorse 
the promissory note. This being impossible, as 
her father was dying at the time, she took the 
shortest way out of the difficulty by writing the 
name herself, to the entire satisfaction of the 
moneylender, who, though not at all duped, 

8o TJie Quintessence of Ibse?zism. 

knows that forged bills are often the surest to be 
paid. Then she slaves in secret at scrivener's 
work until she has nearly paid off the debt. At 
this point Helmer is made manager of the bank 
in which he is employed ; and the moneylender, 
wishing to obtain a post there, uses the forged 
bill to force Nora to exert her influence with 
Helmer on his behalf But she, having a hearty 
contempt for the man, cannot be persuaded 
by him that there was any harm in putting 
her father's name on the bill, and ridicules the 
suggestion that the law would not recognize 
that she was right under the circumstances. It 
is her husband's own contemptuous denunciation 
of a forgery formerly committed by the money- 
lender himself that destroys her self-satisfaction 
and opens her eyes to her ignorance of the 
serious business of the world to which her 
husband belongs — the world outside the home 
he shares with her. When he goes on to tell 
her that commercial dishonesty is generally to 
be traced to the influence of bad mothers, she 
begins to perceive that the happy way in which 
she plays with the children, and the care she 
takes to dress them nicely, are not sufficient to 
constitute her a fit person to train them. In 
order to redeem the forged bill, she resolves to 
borrow the balance due upon it from a friend of 
the family. She has learnt to coax her husband 

A DoWs House. %\ 

into giving her what she asks by appealing to his 
affection for her : that is, by playing all sorts of 
pretty tricks until he is wheedled into an amorous 
humour. This plan she has adopted without 
thinking about it, instinctively taking the line of 
least resistance with him. And now she naturally 
takes the same line with her husband's friend. 
An unexpected declaration of love from him is 
the result ; and it at once explains to her the 
real nature of the domestic influence she has been 
so proud of. All her illusions about herself are 
now shattered : she sees herself as an ignorant 
and silly woman, a dangerous mother, and a wife 
kept for her husband's pleasure merely ; but she 
only clings the harder to her illusion about him : 
he is still the ideal husband who would make 
any sacrifice to rescue her from ruin. She re- 
solves to kill herself rather than allow him to 
destroy his own career by taking the forgery on 
himself to save her reputation. The final dis- 
illusion comes when he, instead of at once pro- 
posing to pursue this ideal line of conduct when 
he hears of the forgery, naturally enough flies 
into a vulgar rage and heaps invective on her 
for disgracing him. Then she sees that their 
whole family life has been a fiction — their home 
a mere doll's house in which they have been 
playing at ideal husband and father, wife and 
mother. So she leaves him then and there in 

82 The Qtiintessence of Ibsenism. 

order to find out the reality of things for her- 
self, and to gain some position not fundamen- 
tally false, refusing to see her children again 
until she is fit to be in charge of them, or to 
live with him until she and he become capable 
of a more honourable relation to one another 
than that in which they have hitherto stood. He 
at first cannot understand what has happened, 
and flourishes the shattered ideals over her as if 
they were as potent as ever. He presents the 
course most agreeable to him — that of her stay- 
ing at home and avoiding a scandal — as her 
duty to her husband, to her children, and to her 
religion ; but the magic of these disguises is 
gone ; and at last even he understands what has 
really happewed, and sits down alone to wonder 
whether that more honourable relation can ever 
come to pass between them. 

In his next play, Ibsen returned to the charge 
with such an uncompromising and outspoken 
attack on marriage as a useless sacrifice of 
human beings to an ideal, that his meaning was 
obscured by its very obviousness. Ghosts^ as 
it is called, is the story of a woman who has 
faithfully acted as a model wife and mother, 
sacrificing herself at every point with selfless 
thoroughness. Her husband is a man with a 

Ghosts. 83 

huge capacity and appetite for sensuous enjoy- 
ment. Society, prescribing ideal duties and not 
enjoyment for him, drives him to enjoy him- 
self in underhand and illicit ways. When he 
marries his model wife, her devotion to duty 
only makes life harder for him ; and he at last 
takes refuge in the caresses of an undutiful but 
pleasure-loving housemaid, and leaves his wife to 
satisfy her conscience by managing his business 
affairs whilst he satisfies his cravings as best he 
can by reading novels, drinking, and flirting, as 
aforesaid, with the servants. At this point even 
those who are most indignant with Nora Helmer 
for walking out of the doll's house, must admit 
that Mrs Alving would be justified in walking 
out of her house. But Ibsen is determined to 
show you what comes of the scrupulous line of 
conduct you were so angry with Nora for not pur- 
suing. Mrs Alving feels that her place is by her 
husband for better for worse, and by her child. 
Now the ideal of wifely and womanly duty which 
demands this from her also demands that she 
should regard herself as an outraged wife, and 
her husband as a scoundrel. The family ideal 
again requires that she should suffer in silence, 
and, for her son's sake, never shatter his faith in 
the purity of home life by letting him know the 
truth about his father. It is her duty to conceal 
that truth from the world and from him. In 

84 Tlie Quintessence of Ibsenisrn. 

this she only falters for one moment. Her 
marriage has not been a love match : she has, 
in pursuance of her duty as a daughter, con- 
tracted it for the sake of her family, although 
her heart inclined to a highly respectable clergy- 
man, a professor of her own idealism, named 
Mandcrs. In the humiliation of her first dis- 
covery of her husband's infidelity, she leaves the 
house and takes refuge with Manders ; but he at 
once leads her back to the path of duty, from 
which she does not again swerve. With the 
utmost devotion she now carries out a tre- 
mendous scheme of lying and imposture. She 
so manages her husband's affairs and so shields 
his good name that everybody believes him to 
be a public-spirited citizen of the strictest con- 
formity to current ideals of respectability and 
family life. She sits up of nights listening to 
his lewd and silly conversation, and even drink- 
ing with him, to keep him from going into the 
streets and betraying what she considers his 
vices. She provides for the servant he has 
seduced, and brings up his illegitimate daughter 
as a maid in her own household. And as a 
crowning sacrifice, she sends her son away to 
Paris to be educated there, knowing that if he 
stays at home the shattering of his ideals must 
come sooner or later. Her work is crowned 
with success. She gains the esteem of her old 

Ghosts. 85 

love the clergyman, who is never tired of holding 
up her household as a beautiful realization of the 
Christian ideal of marriage. Her own martyrdom 
is brought to an end at last by the death of her 
husband in the odour of a most sanctified re- 
putation, leaving her free to recall her son from 
Paris and enjoy his society, and his love and 
gratitude, in the flower of his early manhood. 
But when he comes home, the facts refuse as 
obstinately as ever to correspond to her ideals. 
Oswald, the son, has inherited his father's love 
of enjoyment; and when, in dull rainy weather, 
he returns from Paris to the solemn, strictly 
ordered house where virtue and duty have had 
their temple for so many years, his mother sees 
him first shew the unmistakable signs of boredom 
with which she is so miserably familiar from of 
old ; then sit after dinner killing time over the 
bottle ; and finally — the climax of anguish — 
begin to flirt with the maid who, as his mother 
alone knows, is his own father's daughter. But 
there is this worldwide difference in her insight 
to the cases of the fiithcr and the son. She 
did not love the father : she loves the son with 
the intensity of a heart-starved woman who has 
nothing else left to love. Instead of recoiling 
from him with pious disgust and Pharisaical 
consciousness of moral superiority, she sees at 
once that he has a right to be happy in his own 

86 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

way, and that she has no right to force him to 
be dutiful and wretched in hers. She sees, too, 
her injustice to the unfortunate father, and the 
iniquity of the monstrous fabric of lies and false 
appearances which she has wasted her life in 
manufacturing. She resolves that the son's life, 
at least, shall not be sacrificed to joyless and un- 
natural ideals. But she soon finds that the work 
of the ideals is not to be undone quite so easily. 
In driving the father to steal his pleasures in 
secrecy and squalor, they had brought upon him 
the diseases bred by such conditions ; and her 
son now tells her that those diseases have left 
their mark on him, and that he carries poison 
in his pocket against the time, foretold to him 
by a Parisian surgeon, when he shall be struck 
down with softening of the brain. In despera- 
tion she turns to the task of rescuing him from 
this horrible apprehension by making his life 
happy. The house shall be made as bright as 
Paris for him : he shall have as much champagne 
as he wishes until he is no longer driven to 
that dangerous resource by the dulness of his life 
with her : if he loves the girl he shall marry her 
if she were fifty times his half-sister. But the 
half-sister, on learning the state of his health, 
leaves the house; for she, too, is her father's 
daughter, and is not going to sacrifice her life in 
devotion to an invalid. When the mother and 

Ghosts. %7 

son are left alone in their dreary home, with the 
rain still falling outside, all she can do for him is 
to promise that if his doom overtakes him before 
he can poison himself, she will make a final sacri- 
fice of her natural feelings by performing that 
dreadful duty, the first of all her duties that has 
any real basis. Then the weather clears up at 
last ; and the sun, which the young man has so 
longed to see, appears. He asks her to give it to 
him to play with ; and a glance at him shews her 
that the ideals have claimed their victim, and 
that the time has come for her to save him from 
a real horror by sending him from her out of 
the world, just as she saved him from an imagi- 
nary one years before by sending him out of 

This last scene of Ghosts is so appallingly 
tragic that the emotions it excites prevent the 
meaning of the play from being seized and 
discussed like that of A Doll's House. In Eng- 
land nobody, as far as I know, seems to have 
perceived that Ghosts is to A Doll's House what 
Mr Walter Besant intended his own "sequel"* 

* An astonishing^ production, which will be found in 
the English Illustrated Magazme for January 1890. Mr 
Besant makes the moneylender, as a reformed man, and 
a pattern of all the virtues, repeat his old tactics by hold- 
ing a forged bill in terrorem over Nora's grown-up 
daughter, who is engaged to his son. The bill has been 

88 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

to that play to be. Mr Besant attempted to shew 
what might come of Nora's repudiation of that 
idealism of which he is one of the most popular 
professors. But the effect made on Mr Besant 
by A Doll's House was very faint compared to 
that produced on the English critics by the 
first performance of Ghosts in this country. In 
the earlier part of this essay I have shewn that 
since Mrs Alving's early conceptions of duty 
are as valid to ordinary critics as to Pastor 
Manders, who must appear to them as an 
admirable man, endowed with Helmer's good 
sense without Helmer's selfishness, a pretty 
general disapproval of the "moral" of the play 
was inevitable. Fortunately, the newspaper 

forged by her brother, who has inherited a tendency to 
this sort of offence from his mother. Helmer having 
taken to drink after the departure of his wife, and 
forfeited his social position, the moneylender tells the 
girl that if she persists in disgracing him by marrying 
his son, he will send her brother to gaol. She evades 
the dilemma by drowning herself. An exquisite absur- 
dity is given to this jeu d'esprit by the moral, which 
is, that if Nora had never run away from her husband 
her daughter would never have drowned herself; and 
also by the writer's naive unconsciousness of the fact 
that he has represented the moneylender as doing over 
again what he did in the play, with the difference that, 
having become eminently respectable, he has also become 
a remorseless scoundrel. Ibsen shows him as a good- 
natured fellow at bottom. 

Ghosts. 89 

press went to such bedlamite lengths on this 
occasion that Mr William Archer, the well- 
known dramatic critic and translator of Ibsen, 
was able to put the whole body of hostile 
criticism out of court by simply quoting its 
excesses in an article entitled Ghosts a?id Gibber- 
ings, which appeared in the Pail Mall Gazette 
of the 8th of April 1891. Mr Archer's extracts, 
which he offers as a nucleus for a Dictionary 
of Abuse modelled upon the Wagner " Schimpf- 
Lexicon," are worth reprinting here as samples 
of contemporary idealist criticism of the drama. 

Descriptions of tiie Play. 
" Ibsen's positively abominable play entitled 
Gliosis. . . This disgusting representation. . . 
Reprobation due to such as aim at infecting 
the modern theatre with poison after desperately 
inoculating themselves and others. . . An open 
drain ; a loathsome sore unbandaged ; a dirty 
act done publicly ; a lazar-house with all its 
doors and windows open. . . Candid foulness. 
. . . Kotzcbue turned bestial and cynical. 
Offensive cynicism. . . Ibsen's melancholy and 
malodorous world. . . Absolutely loathsome 
and fetid. . . Gross, almost putrid indecorum. 
. . . Literary carrion. . . Crapulous stuff. . . 
Novel and perilous nuisance." — Daily Telegraph 
(leading article). " This mass of vulgarity, 

90 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

egotism, coarseness, and absurdity." — Daily 
Telegraph (criticism). " Unutterably offensive. 
. . . Prosecution under Lord Campbell's Act. . . 
Abominable piece. . . Scandalous." — Standard. 
" Naked loathsomeness. . . Most dismal and 
repulsive production." — Daily News. " Revolt- 
ingly suggestive and blasphemous. , . Char- 
acters either contradictory in themselves, un- 
interesting or abhorrent." — Daily Chronicle. 
" A repulsive and degrading work." — Queen. 
" Morbid, unhealthy, unwholesome and disgust- 
ing story. . . A piece to bring the stage into 
disrepute and dishonour with every right- 
thinking man and woman." — Lloyd's. " Merely 
dull dirt long drawn out." — Hawk. " Morbid 
horrors of the hideous tale. . . Ponderous 
dulness of the didactic talk, . . If any repeti- 
tion of this outrage be attempted, the authorities 
will doubtless wake from their lethargy." — 
Sporting and Dramatic News. " Just a wicked 
nightmare." — The Gentlezvonian. " Lugubrious 
diagnosis of sordid impropriety. . . Characters 
are prigs, pedants, and profligates. . . Morbid 
caricatures. . . Maunderings of nookshotten 
Norwegians. . . It is no more of a play than 
an average Gaiety burlesque." — W. St Leger 
in Black and White. " Most loathsome of all 
Ibsen's plays. . . Garbage and offal." — Truth. 
" Ibsen's putrid play called Ghosts. . . So loath- 

Ghosts. 91 

some an enterprise." — Academy. " As foul and 
filthy a concoction as has ever been allowed 
to disgrace the boards of an English theatre. . . 
Dull and disgusting. . . Nastiness and malo- 
dorousness laid on thickly as with a trowel." — 
Era. " Noisome corruption." — Stage. 

DesciHptio7is of Ibsen. 

" An egotist and a bungler." — Daily Telegraph. 
" A crazy fanatic. . . A crazy, cranky being. . . 
Not only consistently dirty but deplorably dull." 
— Truth. "The Norwegian pessimist in petto'' 
\sic\ — W. St Leger in Black and White. '' Ugly, 
nasty, discordant, and downright dull. . . A 
gloomy sort of ghoul, bent on groping for horrors 
by night, and blinking like a stupid old owl when 
the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into 
his wrinkled eyes." — Gentlewoman. "A teacher 
of the aistheticism of the Lock Hospital." — 
Saturday Review. 

Descriptio7is of Ibsen's Admirers. 
" Lovers of prurience and dabblers in im- 
propriety who are eager to gratify their illicit 
tastes under the pretence of art." — Evening 
Standard. " Ninety-seven per cent, of the people 
who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people 
who find the discussion of nasty subjects to 
their taste in exact proportion to their nasti- 

92 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

ness." — Sporting and Dramatic News. '* The 
sexless. . . The unwomanly woman, the un- 
sexed females, the whole army of unprepos- 
sessing cranks in petticoats. . . Educated and 
muck-ferreting dogs. . . Effeminate men and 
male women. . . They all of them — men and 
women alike — know that they are doing not only 
a nasty but an illegal thing. . . The Lord 
Chamberlain left them alone to wallow in Ghosts. 
. . Outside a silly clique, there is not the slightest 
interest in the Scandinavian humbug or all his 
works. . . A wave of human folly." — Truth. 


After this, the reader will understand the 
temper in which Ibsen set about his next play. 
An Enemy of the People, in which, having done 
sufficient execution among the ordinary social, 
domestic, and puritanic ideals, he puts his finger 
for a moment on political ideals. The play 
deals with a local majority of middle-class 
people who are pecuniarily interested in con- 
cealing the fact that the famous baths which 
attract visitors to their town and customers 
to their shops and hotels are contaminated by 
sewage. When an honest doctor insists on ex- 
posing this danger, the townspeople immediately 
disguise themselves ideally. Feeling the dis- 
advantage of appearing in their true character 

An Enemy of the People. 93 

as a conspiracy of interested rogues against an 
honest man, they pose as Society, as The People, 
as Democracy, as the soHd Liberal Majority, and 
other imposing abstractions, the doctor, in attack- 
ing them, of course being thereby made an enemy 
of The People, a danger to Society, a traitor to 
Democracy, an apostate from the great Liberal 
party, and so on. Only those who take an active 
part in politics can appreciate the grim fun of the 
situation, which, though it has an intensely local 
Norwegian air, will be at once recognized as 
typical in England, not, perhaps, by the pro- 
fessional literary critics, who are for the most 
^diVt faineants as far as political life is concerned, 
but certainly by everyone who has got as far as 
a seat on the committee of the most obscure 

As An Enemy of the People contains one or 
two references to democracy which are any- 
thing but respectful, it is necessary to define 
Ibsen's criticism of it with precision. Democracy 
is really only an arrangement by which the whole 
people arc given a certain share in the control of 
the government. It has never been proved that 
this is ideally the best arrangement : it became 
necessary because the people willed to have it ; 
and it has been made effective only to the very 
limited extent short of which the dissatisfaction 
of the majority would have taken the form of 

94 Tlie Quintessence of Ibsenisnt. 

actual violence. Now when men had to submit 
to kings, they consoled themselves by making 
it an article of faith that the king was always 
right — idealized him as a Pope, in fact. In the 
same way we who have to submit to majorities 
set up Voltaire's pope, " Monsieur Tout-le- 
monde," and make it blasphemy against Demo- 
cracy to deny that the majority is always right, 
although that, as Ibsen says, is a lie. It is a 
scientific fact that the majority, however eager 
it may be for the reform of old abuses, is always 
wrong in its opinion of new developments, or 
rather is always unfit for them (for it can hardly 
be said to be wrong in opposing developments 
for which it is not yet fit). The pioneer is 
a tiny minority of the force he heads ; and so, 
though it is easy to be in a minority and yet be 
wrong, it is absolutely impossible to be in the 
majority and yet be right as to the newest social 
prospects. We should never progress at all if it 
were possible for each of us to stand still on 
democratic principles until we saw whither all 
the rest were moving, as our statesmen declare 
themselves bound to do when they are called 
upon to lead. Whatever clatter we may make 
for a time with our filing through feudal serf 
collars and kicking off rusty capitalistic fetters, 
we shall never march a step forward except at 
the heels of " the strongest man, he who is able 

An Enemy of the People. 95 

to stand alone " and to turn his back on " the 
damned compact Liberal majority." All of 
which is no disparagement of adult suffrage, 
payment of members, annual parliaments and so 
on, but simply a wholesome reduction of them 
to their real place in the social economy as pure 
machinery — machinery which has absolutely no 
principles except the principles of mechanics, 
and no motive power in itself whatsoever. The 
idealization of public organizations is as danger- 
ous as that of kings or priests. We need to 
be reminded that though there is in the world 
a vast number of buildings in which a certain 
ritual is conducted before crowds called congre- 
gations by a functionary called a priest, who is 
subject to a central council controlling all such 
functionaries on a few points, there is not there- 
fore any such thing in reality as the ideal 
Catholic Church, nor ever was, nor ever will 
be. There may, too, be a highly elaborate 
organization of public affairs ; but there is no 
such thing as the ideal State. All abstractions 
invested with collective consciousness or collec- 
tive authority, set above the individual, and 
exacting duty from him on pretence of acting or 
thinking with greater validity than he, are man- 
eating idols red with human sacrifices. This 
position must not be confounded with Anarchism, 
or the idealization of the repudiation of Govern- 

g6 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

ments. Ibsen does not refuse to pay the tax 
collector, but may be supposed to regard him, 
not as an emissary of something that does not 
exist and never did, called THE STATE, but simply 
as the man sent round by the committee of 
citizens (mostly fools as far as "the third em- 
pire " is concerned) to collect the money for the 
police or the paving and lighting of the streets. 


After An Enemy of the People^ Ibsen, as I have 
said, left the vulgar ideals for dead, and set about 
the exposure of those of the choicer spirits, 
beginning with the incorrigible idealists who 
had idealized his very self, and were becoming 
known as Ibsenites. His first move in this 
direction was such a tragi-comic slaughtering of 
sham Ibsenism that his astonished victims plain- 
tively declared that The Wild Duck, as the new 
play was called, was a satire on his former works; 
whilst the pious, whom he had disappointed so 
severely by his interpretation of Brand, began to 
think that he had come back repentant to the 
fold. The household to which we are intro- 
duced in The Wild Duck is not, like Mrs 
Alving's, a handsome one made miserable by 
superstitious illusions, but a shabby one made 
happy by romantic illusions. The only member 
of it who sees it as it really is is the wife, a good- 

The Wild Duck, 97 

natured Philistine who desires nothing better. 
The husband, a vain, petted, spoilt dawdler, 
believes that he is a delicate and high-souled 
man, devoting his life to redeeming his old father's 
name from the disgrace brought on it by an 
imprisonment for breach of the forest laws. This 
redemption he proposes to effect by making him- 
self famous as a great inventor some day when he 
has the necessary inspiration. Their daughter, 
a girl in her teens, believes intensely in her father 
and in the promised invention. The disgraced 
grandfather cheers himself by drink whenever 
he can get it ; but his chief resource is a wonder- 
ful garret full of rabbits and pigeons. The old 
man has procured a number of second-hand 
Christmas trees ; and with these he has turned 
the garret into a sort of toy forest, in which he 
can play at bear hunting, which was one of the 
sports of his youth and prosperity. The weapons 
employed in the hunting expeditions are a gun 
which will not go off, and a pistol which occa- 
sionally brings down a rabbit or a pigeon. 
A crowning touch is given to the illusion by a 
wild duck, which, however, must not be shot, 
as it is the special property of the girl, who 
reads and dreams whilst the woman cooks and 
washes, besides carrying on the photographic 
work which is supposed to be the business of her 
husband. She does not appreciate his highly 

98 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

strung sensitiveness of character, which is con- 
stantly suffering agonizing jars from her vul- 
garity ; but then she does not appreciate that 
other fact that he is a lazy and idle impostor. 
Downstairs there is a disgraceful clergyman 
named Molvik, a hopeless drunkard ; but even 
he respects himself and is tolerated because of 
a special illusion invented for him by another 
lodger, a doctor — the now famous Dr Relling 
— upon whom the lesson of the household above 
has not been thrown away. Molvik, says the 
doctor, must break out into drinking fits because 
he is daimonic, an interesting explanation which 
completely relieves the reverend gentleman from 
the imputation of vulgar tippling. 

Into this domestic circle there comes a new 
lodger, an idealist of the most advanced type. 
He greedily swallows the daimonic theory of 
the clergyman's drunkenness, and enthusias- 
tically accepts the photographer as the high- 
souled hero he supposes himself to be ; but he is 
troubled because the relations of the man and 
his wife do not constitute an ideal marriage. 
He happens to know that the woman, before her 
marriage, was the cast-off mistress of his own 
father ; and because she has not told her hus- 
band this, he conceives her life as founded on 
a lie, like that of Bernick in Pillars of Society. 
He accordingly sets himself to work out the 

The Wild Duck. 99 

woman's salvation for her, and establish ideally 
frank relations between the pair, by simply blurt- 
ing out the truth, and then asking them, with 
fatuous self-satisfaction, whether they do not 
feel much the better for it. This wanton piece 
of mischief has more serious results than a mere 
domestic scene. The husband is too weak to 
act on his bluster about outraged honour and 
the impossibility of his ever living with his wife 
again ; and the woman is merely annoyed with 
the idealist for telling on her ; but the girl takes 
the matter to heart and shoots herself The doubt 
cast on her parentage, with her father's theatrical 
repudiation of her, destroy her ideal place in 
the home, and make her a source of discord 
there ; so she sacrifices herself, thereby carrying 
out the teaching of the idealist mischief-maker, 
who has talked a good deal to her about the 
duty and beauty of self-sacrifice, without fore- 
seeing that he might be taken in mortal earnest. 
The busybody thus finds that people cannot be 
freed from their failings from without. They 
must free themselves. When Nora is strong 
enough to live out of the doll's house, she will go 
out of it of her own accord if the door stands 
open ; but if before that period you take her by 
the scruff of the neck and thrust her out, she will 
only take refuge in the next establishment of 
the kind that offers to receive her. Woman has 

lOO The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

thus two enemies to deal with : the old-fashioned 
one who wants to keep the door locked, and the 
new-fashioned one who wants to thrust her into 
the street before she is ready to go. In the 
cognate case of a hypocrite and liar like Bernick, 
exposing him is a mere police measure : he is 
none the less a liar and hypocrite when you have 
exposed him. If you want to make a sincere 
and truthful man of him, all that you can do is 
to remove what you can of the external obstacles 
to his exposing himself, and then wait for the 
operation of his internal impulse to confess. If 
he has no such impulse, then you must put up with 
him as he is. It is useless to make claims on him 
which he is not yet prepared to meet. Whether, 
like Brand, w^e make such claims because to 
refrain would be to compromise with evil, or, like 
Gregers Werle, because we think their moral 
beauty must recommend them at sight to every 
one, we shall alike incur Relling's impatient 
assurance that " life would be quite tolerable if 
we could only get rid of the confounded duns 
that keep on pestering us in our poverty with the 
claims of the ideal." 


Ibsen did not in TJie Wild Ditck exhaust the 
subject of the danger of forming ideals for other 
people, and interfering in their lives with a view 

Rosinersholni . I O I 

to enabling them to realize those ideals. Cases 
far more typical than that of the meddlesome 
lodger are those of the priest who regards the 
ennobling of mankind as a sort of trade process 
of which his cloth gives him a monopoly, and the 
clever woman who pictures a noble career for 
the man she loves, and devotes herself to help- 
ing him to achieve it. In RosDiersholm, the play 
with which Ibsen followed up TJie Wild Duck, 
there is an unpractical country parson, a gentle- 
man of ancient stock, whose family has been for 
many years a centre of social influence. The 
tradition of that influence reinforces his priestly 
tendency to regard the ennoblement of the world 
as an external operation to be performed by 
himself; and the need of such ennoblement is 
very evident to him ; for his nature is a fine 
one : he looks at the world with some dim 
prevision of " the third empire." I le is married 
to a woman of passionately affectionate nature, 
who is very fond of him, but does not regard him 
as a regenerator of the human race. Indeed she 
does not share any of his dreams, and only acts 
as an extinguisher on the sacred fire of his 
idealism. He, she, her brother Kroll the head- 
master, Kroll's wife, and their set form a select 
circle of the best people in the place, comfort- 
ably orbited in the social system, and quite 
planetary in ascertained position and unim- 

102 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

peachable respectability. Into the orbit comes 
presently a wandering star, one Rebecca Gam- 
vik, an unpropertied orphan, who has been 
allowed to read advanced books, and is a Free- 
thinker and a Radical — all things that disqua- 
lify a poor woman for admission to the Rosmer 
world. However, one must live somewhere ; 
and as the Rosmer world is the only one in 
which an ambitious and cultivated woman can 
find powerful allies and educated companions, 
Rebecca, being both ambitious and cultivated, 
makes herself agreeable to the Rosmer circle 
with such success that the affectionate and im- 
pulsive but unintelligent Mrs Rosmer becomes 
wildly fond of her, and is not content until she 
has persuaded her to come and live with them. 
Rebecca, then a mere adventuress fighting for 
a foothold in polite society (which has hitherto 
shown itself highly indignant at her thrusting 
herself in where nobody has thought of pro- 
viding room for her), accepts the offer all the 
more readily because she has taken the mea- 
sure of Parson Rosmer, and formed the idea of 
playing upon his aspirations, and making herself 
a leader in politics and society by using him as 
a figure-head. 

But now two difficulties arise. First, there is 
Mrs Rosmer's extinguishing effect on her hus- 
band — an effect which convinces Rebecca that 

Rosuiersholm . 103 

nothing can be done with him whilst his wife is 
in the way. Second — a contingency quite un- 
allowed for in her provident calculations — she 
finds herself passionately enamoured of him. 
The poor parson, too, falls in love with her ; but 
he does not know it. He turns to the woman 
who understands him like a sunflower to the 
sun, and makes her his real friend and com- 
panion. The wife feels this soon enough ; and 
he, quite unconscious of it, begins to think that 
her mind must be affected, since she has become 
so intensely miserable and hysterical about 
nothing — nothing that he can see. The truth is 
that she has come under the curse of the ideal 
too : she sees herself standing, a useless obstacle, 
between her husband and the woman he really 
loves, the woman who can help him to a glorious 
career. She cannot even be the mother in the 
household ; for she is childless. Then comes 
Rebecca, fortified with a finely reasoned theory 
that Rosmer's future is staked against his wife's 
life, and says that it is better for all their sakes 
that she should quit Rosmersholm. She even 
hints that she must go at once if a grave 
scandal is to be avoided. Mrs Rosmer, regard- 
ing a scandal in Rosmersholm as the most 
terrible thing that can happen, and seeing that 
it could be averted by the marriage of Rebecca 
and Rosmer if she were out of the way, writes a 

104 ^/^^ Quintessence of Ibsenisvi. 

letter secretly to Rosmer's bitterest enemy, the 
editor of the local Radical paper, a man who 
has forfeited his moral reputation by an in- 
trigue which Rosmer has pitilessly denounced. 
In this letter she implores him not to believe or 
publish any stories that he may hear about 
Rosmer, to the effect that he is in any way to 
blame for anything that may happen to her. 
Then she sets Rosmer free to marry Rebecca, 
and to realize his ideals, by going out into the 
garden and throwing herself into the millstream 
that runs there. 

Now follows a period of quiet mourning at 
Rosmersholm. Everybody except Rosmer sus- 
pects that Mrs Rosmer was not mad, and guesses 
why she committed suicide. Only it would not do 
to compromise the aristocratic party by treating 
Rosmer as the Radical editor was treated. So 
the neighbours shut their eyes and condole 
with the bereaved clergyman ; and the Radical 
editor holds his tongue because Radicalism is 
getting respectable, and he hopes, with Rebecca's 
help, to get Rosmer over to his side presently. 
Meanwhile the unexpected has again happened 
to Rebecca. Her passion is worn out ; but in 
the long days of mourning she has found the 
higher love ; and it is now for Rosmer's own sake 
that she urges him to become a man of action, 
and brood no more over* the dead. When his 

Rosinersliolm. 105 

friends start a Conservative paper and ask him to 
become editor, she induces him to reply by declar- 
ing himself a Radical and Freethinker. To his 
utter amazement, the result is, not an animated 
discussion of his views, but just such an attack 
on his home life and private conduct as he had 
formerly made on those of the Radical editor. 
His friends tell him plainly that the compact of 
silence is broken by his defection, and that there 
will be no mercy for the traitor to the party. 
Even the Radical editor not only refuses to 
publish the fact that his new ally is a Free- 
thinker (which would destroy all his social 
weight as a Radical recruit), but brings up 
the dead woman's letter as a proof that the 
attack is sufficiently well-founded to make it 
unwise to go too far. Rosmer, who at first 
had been simply shocked that men whom he 
had always honoured as gentlemen should de- 
scend to such hideous calumny, now sees that 
he really did love Rebecca, and is indeed guilty 
of his wife's death. His first impulse is to shake 
off the spectre of the dead woman by marrying 
Rebecca ; but she, knowing that the guilt is hers, 
puts that temptation behind her and refuses. 
Then, as he thinks it all over, his dream of en- 
nobling the world slips away from him : such 
work can only be done by a man conscious of 
his own innocence. To save him from despair, 

lo6 The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

Rebecca makes a great sacrifice. She " gives 
him back his innocence " by confessing how she 
drove his wife to kill herself ; and, as the con- 
fession is made in the presence of Kroll, she 
ascribes the whole plot to her ambition, and says 
not a word of her passion. Rosmer, confounded 
as he realizes what helpless puppets they have, 
all been in the hands of this clever woman, for 
the moment misses the point that unscrupulous 
ambition, though it explains her crime, does 
not account for her confession. He turns his 
back on her and leaves the house with Kroll. 
She quietly packs up her trunk, and is about to 
vanish from Rosmersholm without another word 
when he comes back alone to ask why she con- 
fessed. She tells him why, offering him her 
self-sacrifice as a proof that his power of en- 
nobling others was no vain dream, since it is his 
companionship that has changed her from the 
selfish adventuress she was to the devoted woman 
she has just proved herself to be. But he has 
lost his faith in himself, and cannot believe her. 
The proof is too subtle, too artful : he cannot 
forget that she duped him by flattering this very 
weakness of his before. Besides, he knows now 
that it is not true — that people are not ennobled 
from without. She has no more to say ; for she 
can think of no further proof But he has thought 
of an unanswerable one. Dare she make all doubt 

Rosmersholm. 107 

impossible by doing for his sake what the wife 
did ? She asks what would happen if she had 
the heart and the will to do it. " Then," he 
replies, " I should have to believe in you. I 
should recover my faith in my mission. Faith 
in my power to ennoble human souls. Faith in 
the human soul's power to attain nobility." " You 
shall have your faith again," she answers. At 
this pass the inner truth of the situation comes 
out ; and the thin veil of a demand for " proof", 
with its monstrous sequel of asking the woman 
to kill herself in order to restore the man's good 
opinion of himself, falls away. What has really 
seized Rosmer is the old fatal ideal of expiation 
by sacrifice. He sees that when Rebecca goes 
into the millstream he must go too. And he 
speaks his real mind in the words, " There is no 
judge over us : therefore we must do justice upon 
ourselves." But the woman's soul is free of this 
to the end ; for when she says, " I am under the 
power of the Rosmersholm view of life noiv. 
What I have sinned it is fit I should expiate," 
we feel in that speech a protest against the 
Rosmersholm view of life — the view that denied 
her right to live and be happy from the first, and 
now at the end, even in denying its God, exacts 
her life as a vain blood-offering for its own blind- 
ness. The woman has the higher light : she goes 
to her death out of fellowship with the man who 

io8 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

is driven thither by the superstition which has 
destroyed his will. The story ends with his 
taking her solemnly as his wife, and casting him- 
self with her into the millstream. 

It is unnecessary to repeat here what is said 
on page 36 as to the vital part played in this 
drama by the evolution of the lower into the 
higher love. Peer Gynt, during the prophetic 
episode in his career, shocks the dancing girl 
Anitra into a remonstrance by comparing himself 
to a cat. He replies, with his wisest air, that 
from the standpoint of love there is perhaps not 
so much difference between a tomcat and a 
prophet as she may imagine. The number of 
critics who have entirely missed the point of 
Rebecca's transfiguration seems to indicate that 
the majority of men, even among critics of 
dramatic poetry, have not got beyond Peer 
Gynt's opinion in this matter. No doubt they 
would not endorse it as a definitely stated pro- 
position, aware, as they are, that there is a poetic 
convention to the contrary. But if they fail to 
recognize the only possible alternative proposi- 
tion when it is not only stated in so many 
words by Rebecca West, but when without it her 
conduct dramatically contradicts her character — 
when they even complain of the contradiction as 
a blemish on the play, I am afraid there can be 
no further doubt that the extreme perplexity 

TJie Lady from the Sea. 109 

into which the first performance of Rosmersholm 
in England plunged the Press was due entirely 
to the prevalence of Peer Gynt's view of love 
among the dramatic critics. 

Ibsen's next play, though it deals with the old 
theme, does not insist on the power of ideals to 
kill, as the two previous plays do. It rather 
deals with the origin of ideals in unhappiness — 
in dissatisfaction with the real. The subject 
of The Lady from the Sea is the most poetic 
fancy imaginable. A young woman, brought 
up on the sea-coast, marries a respectable 
doctor, a widower, who idolizes her and places 
her in his household with nothing to do 
but dream and be made much of by every- 
body. Even the housekeeping is done by her 
stepdaughter : she has no responsibility, no care, 
and no trouble. In other words, she is an idle, 
helpless, utterly dependent article of luxury. A 
man turns red at the thought of being such 
a thing ; but he thoughtlessly accepts a pretty 
and fragile-looking woman in the same posi- 
tion as a charming natural picture. The lady 
from the sea feels an indefinite want in her 
life. She reads her want into all other lives, and 
comes to the conclusion that man once had to 
choose whether he would be a land animal or a 

no The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

creature of the sea ; and that having chosen the 
land, he has carried about with him ever since a 
secret sorrow for the element he has forsaken. The 
dissatisfaction that gnaws her is, as she interprets 
it, this desperate longing for the sea. When her 
only child dies and leaves her without the work 
of a mother to give her a valid place in the world, 
she yields wholly to her longing, and no longer 
cares for her husband, who, like Rosmer, begins to 
fear that she is going mad. At last a seaman 
appears and claims her as his wife on the ground 
that they went years before through a rite which 
consisted of their marrying the sea by throwing 
their rings into it. This man, who had to fly from 
her in the old time because he killed his captain, 
and who fills her with a sense of dread and mys- 
tery, seems to her to embody the attraction which 
the sea has for her. She tells her husband that 
she must go away with the seaman. Naturally 
the doctor expostulates — declares that he cannot 
for her own sake let her do so mad a thing. She 
replies that he can only prevent her by locking her 
up, and asks him what satisfaction it will be to him 
to have her body under lock and key whilst her 
heart is with the other man. In vain he urges 
that he will only keep her under restraint until 
the seaman goes — that he must not, dare not, 
allow her to ruin herself. Her argument remains 
unanswerable. The seaman openly declares that 

TJie Lady from the Sea. 1 1 1 

she will come ; so that the distracted husband 
asks him does he suppose he can force her from 
her home. To this the seaman replies that, on 
the contrary, unless she comes of her own free 
will there is no satisfaction to him in her coming 
at all — the unanswerable argument again. She 
echoes it by demanding her freedom to choose. 
Her husband must cry off his law-made and 
Church-made bargain ; renounce his claim to the 
fulfilment of her vows ; and leave her free to go 
back to the sea with her old lover. Then the 
doctor, with a heavy heart, drops his prate about 
his heavy responsibility for her actions, and throws 
the responsibility on her by crying off as she 
demands. The moment she feels herself a free 
and responsible woman, all her childish fancies 
vanish : the seaman becomes simply an old 
acquaintance whom she no longer cares for ; 
and the doctor's affection produces its natural 
effect. In short, she says No to the seaman, 
and takes over the housekeeping keys from her 
stepdaughter without any further speculations 
concerning that secret sorrow for the aban- 
doned sea. 

It should be noted here that EUida, the Lady 
from the Sea, appears a much more fantastic 
person to English readers than to Norwegian 
ones. The same thing is true of many other 
characters drawn by Ibsen, notably Peer Gynt, 

112 The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

who, if born in England, would certainly not 
have been a poet and metaphysician as well as 
a blackguard and a speculator. The extreme 
type of Norwegian, as depicted by Ibsen, ima- 
gines himself doing wonderful things, but does 
nothing. He dreams as no Englishman dreams, 
and drinks to make himself dream the more, 
until his effective will is destroyed, and he 
becomes a broken-down, disreputable sot, carry- 
ing about the tradition that he is a hero, and 
discussing himself on that assumption. Although 
the number of persons who dawdle their life 
away over fiction in England must be frightful, 
and is probably increasing, yet we have no Ulric 
Brendels, Rosmers, EUidas, Peer Gynts, nor any- 
thing at all like them ; and it is for this reason 
that I am disposed to fear that RosmersJiolm and 
The Lady from the Sea will always be received 
much more incredulously by English audiences 
than A Doll's House and the plays in which the 
leading figures are men and women of action. 


Hedda Gabler, the heroine after whom the last 
of Ibsen's plays (so far) is named, has no ideals 
at all. She is a pure sceptic, a typical nineteenth 
century figure, falling into the abyss between 
the ideals which do not impose on her and the 
realities which she has not yet discovered. The 

Hedda Gabler. i 1 3 

result is that she has no heart, no courage, 
no conviction : with great beauty and great 
energy she remains mean, envious, insolent, cruel 
in protest against others' happiness, a bully in 
reaction from her own cowardice. Hedda's 
father, a general, is a widower. She has the 
traditions of the military caste about her ; and 
these narrow her activities to the customary hunt 
for a socially and pecuniarily eligible husband. 
She makes the acquaintance of a young man 
of genius who, prohibited by an ideal-ridden 
society from taking his pleasures except where 
there is nothing to restrain him from excess, is 
going to the bad in search of his good, with the 
usual consequences. Hedda is intensely curious 
about the side of life which is forbidden to 
her, and in which powerful instincts, absolutely 
ignored and condemned by the society with 
which intercourse is permitted to her, steal their 
satisfaction. An odd intimacy springs up be- 
tween the inquisitive girl and the rake. Whilst 
the general reads the paper in the afternoon, 
Lovborg and Hedda have long conversations 
in which he describes to her all his disreput- 
able adventures. Although she is the ques- 
tioner, she never dares to trust him : all the 
questions are indirect ; and the responsibility for 
his interpretations rests on him alone. Hedda 
has no conviction whatever that these conver- 

114 ^/^^ Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

sations are disgraceful ; but she will not risk a 
fight with society on the point : hypocrisy, the 
homage that truth pays to falsehood, is easier to 
face, as far as she can see, than ostracism. When 
he proceeds to make advances to her, Hedda has 
again no conviction that it would be wrong for 
her to gratify his instinct and her own ; so that 
she is confronted with the alternative of sinning 
against herself and him, or sinning against social 
ideals in which she has no faith. Making the 
coward's choice, she carries it out with the utmost 
bravado, threatening Lovborg with one of her 
father's pistols, and driving him out of the house 
with all that ostentation of outraged purity which 
is the instinctive defence of women to whom 
chastity is not natural, much as libel actions are 
mostly brought by persons concerning whom 
libels are virtually, if not technically, justifiable. 
Hedda, deprived of her lover, now finds that 
a life of conformity without faith involves some- 
thing more terrible than the utmost ostracism : 
to wit, boredom. This scourge, unknown among 
revolutionists, is the curse which makes the 
security of respectability as dust in the balance 
against the unflagging interest of rebellion, and 
which forces society to eke out its harmless re- 
sources for killing time by licensing gambling, 
gluttony, hunting, shooting, coursing, and other 
vicious distractions for which even idealism has 

Hedda G abler. 115 

no disguise. These licenses, however, are only 
available for people who have more than enough 
money to keep up appearances with ; and as 
Hedda's father is too poor to leave her much 
more than the case of pistols, her boredom is 
only mitigated by dancing, at which she gains 
much admiration, but no substantial offers of 
marriage. At last she has to find someone to 
support her. A good-natured mediocrity of a 
professor is all that is to be had ; and though she 
regards him as a member of an inferior class, 
and despises almost to loathing his family circle 
of two affectionate old aunts and the inevitable 
general servant who has helped to bring him up, 
she marries \\\vix faute de niieux, and immediately 
proceeds to wreck this prudent provision for her 
livelihood by accommodating his income to her 
expenditure instead of accommodating her ex- 
penditure to his income. Her nature so rebels 
against the whole sordid transaction that the 
prospect of bearing a child to her husband drives 
her almost frantic, since it will not only expose 
her to the intimate solicitude of his aunts in the 
course of a derangement of her health in which 
she can see nothing that is not repulsive 'and 
humiliating, but will make her one of his family 
in earnest. To amuse herself in these galling 
circumstances, she forms an underhand alliance 
with a visitor who belongs to her old set, an elderly 

Ii6 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

gallant who quite understands how little she 
cares for her husband, and proposes a menage a 
trois to her. She consents to his coming there 
and talking to her as he pleases behind her hus- 
band's back ; but she keeps her pistols in reserve 
in case he becomes seriously importunate. He, 
on the other hand, tries to get some hold over 
her by placing her husband under pecuniary 
obligations, as far as he can do it without being 
out of pocket. And so Hedda's married life 
begins, with only this gallant as a precaution 
against the most desperate tedium. 

Meanwhile Lovborg is drifting to disgrace by 
the nearest way — through drink. In due time 
he descends from lecturing at the university on 
the history of civilization to taking a job in an 
out-of-the-way place as tutor to the little children 
of Sheriff Elvsted. This functionary, on being 
left a widower with a number of children, marries 
their governess, finding that she will cost him 
less and be bound to do more for him as his 
wife. As for her, she is too poor to dream 
of refusing such a settlement in life. When 
Lovborg comes, his society is heaven to her. 
He does not dare to tell her about his dissi- 
pations ; but he tells her about his unwritten 
books. She does not dare to remonstrate with 
him for drinking ; but he gives it up as soon as 
he sees that it shocks her. Just as Mr Fearing, 

Hedda Gable}'. 1 1 7 

in Bunyan's story, was in a way the bravest of 
the pilgrims, so this timid and unfortunate Mrs 
Elvsted trembles her way to a point at which 
Lovborg, quite reformed, publishes one book 
which makes him celebrated for the moment, and 
completes another, fair-copied in her handwriting, 
to which he looks for a solid position as an origi- 
nal thinker. But he cannot now stay tutoring 
Elvsted's children ; so off he goes to town with 
his pockets full of the money the published book 
has brought him. Left once more in her old 
lonely plight, knowing that without her Lovborg 
will probably relapse into dissipation, and that 
without him her life will not be worth living, 
Mrs Elvsted is now confronted, on her own 
higher plane, with the same alternative which 
Hedda encountered. She must either sin against 
herself and him or against the institution of 
marriage under which Elvsted purchased his 
housekeeper. It never occurs to her even that 
she has any choice. She knows that her action 
will count as "a dreadful thing"; but she sees 
that she must go ; and accordingly Elvsted finds 
himself without a wife and his children without 
a governess, and so disappears unpitied from the 

Now it happens that Hedda's husband, Jorgen 
Tesman, is an old friend and competitor (for 
academic honours) of Lovborg, and also that 

ii8 The Qidntcssencc of Ibsenism. 

Hedda was a schoolfellow of Mrs Elvsted, or 
Thea, as she had better now be called. Thea's first 
business is to find out where Lovborg is ; for hers 
is no preconcerted elopement : she has hurried 
to town to keep Lovborg away from the bottle, 
a design which she dare not hint at to himself 
Accordingly, the first thing she does is to call on 
the Tcsmans, who have just returned from their 
honeymoon, to beg them to invite Lovborg to 
their house so as to keep him in good company. 
They consent, with the result that the two pairs 
are brought together under the same roof, and 
the tragedy begins to work itself out. 

Hedda's attitude now demands a careful 
analysis. Lovborg's experience with Thea has 
enlightened his judgment of Hedda ; and as he 
is, in his gifted way, an arrant /^j-^?/r and male 
coquet, he immediately tries to get on romantic 
terms with her — for have they not " a past " ? — 
by impressing her with the penetrating criticism 
that she is and always was a coward. She 
admits that the virtuous heroics with the pistol 
were pure cowardice ; but she is still so void of 
any other standard of conduct than conformity 
to the conventional ideals, that she thinks her 
cowardice consisted in not daring to be wicked. 
That is, she thinks that what she actually did 
was the right thing ; and since she despises her- 
self for doing it, and feels that he also rightly 

Hedda G abler. 119 

despises her for doing it, she gets a passionate 
feeling that what is wanted is the courage to do 
wrong. This unlooked-for reaction of idealism 
— this monstrous but very common setting-up of 
wrong -doing as an ideal, and of the wrongdoer 
as a hero or heroine qua wrongdoer — leads 
Hedda to conceive that when Lovborg tried to 
seduce her he was a hero, and that in allowing 
Thea to reform him he has played the recreant. 
In acting on this misconception, she is restrained 
by no consideration for any of the rest. Like 
all people whose lives are valueless, she has no 
more sense of the value of Lovborg's or Tesman's 
or Thea's lives than a railway shareholder has 
of the value of a shunter's. She gratifies her 
intense jealousy of Thea by deliberately taunting 
Lovborg into breaking loose from her influence 
by joining a carouse at which he not only loses 
his manuscript, but finally gets into the hands 
of the police through behaving outrageously in 
the house of a disreputable woman whom he 
accuses of stealing it, not knowing that it has 
been picked up by Tesman and handed to 
. Hedda for safe keeping. Now to Hedda this 
bundle of paper in another woman's handwriting 
is the fruit of Lovborg's union with Thea : he 
himself speaks of it as " their child." So when 
he turns his despair to romantic account by 
coming to the two women and making a tragic 

I20 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

scene, telling Thea that he has cast the manu- 
script, torn into a thousand pieces, out upon the 
fiord ; and then, when she is gone, telling Hedda 
that he has brought " the child " to a house of 
ill-fame and lost it there, she, deceived by his 
posing, and thirsting to gain faith in human 
nobility from a heroic deed of some sort, makes 
him a present of one of her pistols, only begging 
him to '* do it beautifully", by which she means 
that he is to kill himself without spoiling his 
appearance. He takes it unblushingly, and 
leaves her with the air of a man who is looking 
his last on earth. But the moment he is out of 
sight of his audience, he goes back to the house 
where he still supposes that the manuscript was 
lost, and there renews the wrangle of the night 
before, using the pistol to threaten the woman, 
with the result that he gets shot in the abdomen, 
leaving the weapon to fall into the hands 
of the police. Meanwhile Hedda deliberately 
burns " the child." Then comes her elderly 
gallant to tell her the true story of the heroic 
deed which Lovborg promised her to do so 
beautifully, and to make her understand that he 
himself has now got her into his power by his 
ability to identify the pistol. She has either to 
be the slave of this man, or else to face the 
scandal of the connection of her name at the 
inquest with a squalid debauch ending in a 

Hcdda Gable}'. I2i 

murder. Thea, too, is not crushed by Lovborg's 
death. Ten minutes after she has received the 
news with a cry of heartfelt loss, she sits down 
with Tesman to reconstruct " the child " from 
the old notes which she has preserved. Over 
the congenial task of collecting and arranging 
another man's ideas Tesman is perfectly happy, 
and forgets his beautiful Hedda for the first 
time. Thea the trembler is still mistress of the 
situation, holding the dead Lovborg, gaining 
Tesman, and leaving Hedda to her elderly 
admirer, who smoothly remarks that he will 
answer for Mrs Tesman not being bored whilst 
her husband is occupied with Thea in putting 
the pieces of the book together. However, he 
has again reckoned without General Gabler's 
second pistol. She shoots herself then and there ; 
and so the story ends. 



IN following this sketch of the plays written 
by Ibsen to illustrate his thesis that the 
real slavery of to-day is slavery to ideals of 
virtue, it may be that readers who have conned 
Ibsen through idealist spectacles have wondered 
that I could so pervert the utterances of a great 
poet. Indeed I know already that many of 
those who are most fascinated by the poetry of 
the plays will plead for any explanation of them 
rather than that given by Ibsen himself in the 
plainest terms through the mouths of Mrs Alving, 
Relling, and the rest. No great writer uses his 
skill to conceal his meaning. There is a tale 
by a famous Scotch story-teller which would 
have suited Ibsen exactly if he had hit on it 
first. Jeanie Deans saciificing her sister's life 
on the scaffold to her own ideal of duty is far 
more horrible than the sacrifice in RosmersJioIm ; 
and the dens ex macJmta expedient by which 
Scott makes the end of his story agreeable is no 
solution of the moral problem raised, but only a 

The Moral of the Plays. 123 

puerile evasion of it. He undoubtedly believed 
that it was right that Effie should hang for the 
sake of Jeanie's ideals.* Consequently, if I were 
to pretend that Scott wrote The Heart of Mid- 
lothian to shew that people are led to do as 
mischievous, as unnatural, as murderous things 
by their religious and moral ideals as by their 
envy and ambition, it would be easy to confute 
me from the pages of the book itself. But 
Ibsen has made his meaning no less plain than 
Scott's. If any one attempts to maintain that 
Ghosts is a polemic in favour of indissoluble 
monogamic marriage, or that The Wild Duck 
was written to inculcate that truth should be 
told for its own sake, they must burn the text of 
the plays if their contention is to stand. The 
reason that Scott's story is tolerated by those 
who shrink from Ghosts is not that it is less 

"'^The common-sense solution of the moral problem has 
often been delivered by acclamation in the theatre. Some 
sixteen or seventeen years ago I witnessed a performance 
of a melodrama founded on this story. After the painful 
trial scene, in which Jeanie Deans condemns her sister to 
death by refusing to swear to a perfectly innocent fiction, 
came a scene in the prison. " If it had been me," said 
the jailor, " I wad ha' sworn a hole through an iron pot." 
The roar of applause which burst from the pit and gallery 
was thoroughly Ibsenite in sentiment. The speech, by 
the way, was a "gag" of the actor's, and is not to be 
found in the acting edition of the play. 

1 24 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

terrible, but that Scott's views are familiar to all 
well-brought-up ladies and gentlemen, whereas 
Ibsen's are for the moment so strange as to be 
almost unthinkable. He is so great a poet 
that the idealist finds himself in the dilemma of 
being unable to conceive that such a genius 
should have an ignoble meaning, and yet equally 
unable to conceive his real meaning as otherwise 
than ignoble. Consequently he misses the mean- 
ing altogether in spite of Ibsen's explicit and 
circumstantial insistence on it, and proceeds to 
interpolate a meaning which conforms to his 
own ideal of nobility. Ibsen's deep sympathy 
with his idealist figures seems to countenance 
this method of making confusion. Since it is 
on the weaknesses of the higher types of char- 
acter that idealism seizes, his examples of vanity, 
selfishness, folly, and failure are not vulgar 
villains, but men who in an ordinary novel or 
melodrama would be heroes. His most tragic 
point is reached in the destinies of Brand and 
Rosmer, who drive those whom they love to 
death in its most wanton and cruel form. The 
ordinary Philistine commits no such atrocities : 
he marries the woman he likes and lives more or 
less happily ever after ; but that is not because 
he is greater than Brand or Rosmer, but because 
he is less. The idealist is a more dangerous 
animal than the Philistine just as a maa is a 

The Moral of the Plays. 125 

more dangerous animal than a sheep. Though 
Brand virtually murdered his wife, 1 can under- 
stand many a woman, comfortably married to 
an amiable Philistine, reading the play and envy- 
ing the victim her husband. For when Brand's 
wife, having made the sacrifice he has exacted, 
tells him that he was right ; that she is happy 
now ; that she sees God face to face — but reminds 
him that " whoso sees Jehovah dies," he in- 
stinctively clasps his hands over her eyes ; and 
that action raises him at once far above the 
criticism that sneers at idealism from beneath, 
instead of surveying it from the clear ether above, 
which can only be reached through its mists. 

If, in my account of the plays, I have myself 
suggested false judgments by describing the 
errors of the idealists in the terms of the life they 
had risen above rather than in that of the life they 
fell short of, I can only plead, with but a moderate 
disrespect to a large section of my readers, that 
if I had done otherwise I should have failed 
wholly to make the matter understood. Indeed 
the terms of the realist morality have not yet 
appeared in our living language ; and I have 
already, in this very distinction between idealism 
and realism, been forced to insist on a sense of 
these terms which, had not Ibsen forced my hand, 
I should perhaps have conveyed otherwise, so 
strongly does it conflict in many of its applica- 

126 The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

tions with the vernacular use of the words. This, 
however, was a trifle compared to the difficulty 
which arose, when personal characters had to be 
described, from our inveterate habit of labelling 
men with the names of their moral qualities 
without the slightest reference to the underlying 
will which sets these qualities in action. At a 
recent anniversary celebration of the Paris Com- 
mune of 1 87 1, I was struck by the fact that no 
speaker could find a eulogy for the Federals 
which would not have been equally appropriate 
to the peasants of La Vendee who fought for 
their tyrants against the French revolutionists, 
or to the Irishmen and Highlanders who fought 
for the Stuarts at the Boyne or Culloden. Nor 
could the celcbrators find any other adjectives 
for their favourite leaders of the Commune than 
those which had recently been liberally applied 
by all the journals to an African explorer 
whose achievements were just then held in the 
liveliest abhorrence by the whole meeting. The 
statements that the slain members of the Com- 
mune were heroes who died for a noble ideal 
would have left a stranger quite as much in the 
dark about them as the counter statements, once 
common enough in middle-class newspapers, that 
they were incendiaries and assassins. Our obitu- 
ary notices are examples of the same ambiguity. 
Of all the public men lately deceased, none 

The Moral of the Plays. 1 27 

have been made more interesting by strongly 
marked personal characteristics than the late 
Charles Bradlaugh. He was not in the least like 
any other notable member of the House of Com- 
mons. Yet when the obituary notices appeared, 
with the usual string of qualities — eloquence, 
determination, integrity, strong common-sense, 
and so on, it would have been possible, by merely 
expunging all names and other external details 
from these notices, to leave the reader entirely 
unable to say whether the subject of them was 
Mr Gladstone, Mr Morley, Mr Stead, or any one 
else no more like Mr Bradlaugh than Garibaldi 
or the late Cardinal Newman, whose obituary 
certificates of morality might nevertheless have 
been reprinted almost verbatim for the occasion 
without any gross incongruity. Bradlaugh had 
been the subject of many sorts of newspaper notice 
in his time. Ten years ago, when the middle 
classes supposed him to be a revolutionist, the 
string of qualities which the press hung upon 
him were all evil ones, great stress being laid on 
the fact that as he was an atheist it would be 
an insult to God to admit him to Parliament. 
When it became apparent that he was a conser- 
vative force in politics, he, without any recantation 
of his atheism, at once had the string of evil 
qualities exchanged for a rosary of good ones ; 
but it is hardly necessary to add that neither 

I2S The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

the old badge nor the new will ever give any 
inquirer the least clue to the sort of man he 
actually was : he might have been Oliver Crom- 
well or Wat Tyler or Jack Cade, Penn or 
Wilberforce or Wellington, the late Mr Hampden 
of flat -earth- theory notoriety or Proudhon or 
the Archbishop of Canterbury, for all the dis- 
tinction that such labels could give him one 
way or the other. The worthlessness of these 
accounts of individuals is recognized in practice 
every day. Tax a stranger before a crowd 
with being a thief, a coward, and a liar ; and 
the crowd will suspend its judgment until you 
answer the question, " What's he done ? " At- 
tempt to make a collection for him on the 
ground that he is an upright, fearless, high- 
principled hero ; and the same question must be 
answered before a penny goes into the hat. 

The reader must therefore discount those par- 
tialities which I have permitted myself to express 
in telling the stories of the plays. They are as 
much beside the mark as any other example of 
the sort of criticism which seeks to create an 
impression favourable or otherwise to Ibsen by 
simply pasting his characters all over with good 
or bad conduct marks. If any person cares to 
describe Hedda Gabler as a modern Lucretia 
who preferred death to dishonour, and Thea 
Elvsted as an abandoned, perjured strumpet who 

T]ie Moral of the Plays. 129 

deserted the man she had sworn before her God 
to love, honour, and obey until her death, the 
play contains conclusive evidence establishing 
both points. If the critic goes on to argue 
that as Ibsen manifestly means to recommend 
Thea's conduct above Hedda's by making the 
end happier for her, the moral of the play is a 
vicious one, that, again, cannot be gainsaid. If, 
on the other hand. Ghosts be defended, as the 
dramatic critic of Piccadilly lately did defend it, 
because it throws into divine relief the beautiful 
figure of the simple and pious Pastor Manders, 
the fatal compliment cannot be parried. When 
you have called Mrs Alving an "emancipated 
woman " or an unprincipled one, Alving a 
debauchee or a "victim of society," Nora a 
fearless and noble-hearted woman or a shocking 
little liar and an unnatural mother, Ilelmer a 
selfish hound or a model husband and father, 
according to your bias, you have said something 
which is at once true and false, and in either case 
perfectly idle. 

The statement that Ibsen's plays have an 
immoral tendency, is, in the sense in which it is 
used, quite true. Immorality does not neces- 
sarily imply mischievous conduct : it implies 
conduct, mischievous or not, which does not 
conform to current ideals. Since Ibsen has 
devoted himself almost entirely to shewing that 

130 The Qiimtessence of Ihsetiism. 

the spirit or will of Man is constantly outgrow- 
ing his ideals, and that therefore conformity to 
them is constantly producing results no less 
tragic than those which follow the violation of 
ideals which are still valid, the main effect of his 
plays is to keep before the public the importance 
of being always prepared to act immorally, 
to remind men that they ought to be as careful 
how they yield to a temptation to tell the truth 
as to a temptation to hold their tongues, and to 
urge upon women that the desirability of their 
preserving their chastity depends just as much 
on circumstances as the desirability of taking 
a cab instead of walking. He protests against 
the ordinary assumption that there are certain 
supreme ends which justify all means used to 
attain them ; and insists that every end shall be 
challenged to shew that it justifies the means. 
Our ideals, like the gods of old, are constantly 
demanding human sacrifices. Let none of them, 
says Ibsen, be placed above the obligation to 
prove that they are worth the sacrifices they 
demand ; and let every one refuse to sacrifice 
himself and others from the moment he loses his 
faith in the reality of the ideal. Of course it 
will be said here by incorrigibly slipshod readers 
that this, so far from being immoral, is the high- 
est morality ; and so, in a sense, it is ; but I really 
shall not waste any further explanation on those 

The Moral of the Plays. 1 3 1 

who will neither mean one thing or another by 
a word nor allow me to do so. In short, then, 
among those who are not ridden by current 
ideals no question as to the morality of Ibsen's 
plays will ever arise ; and among those who are 
so ridden his plays will seem immoral, and 
cannot be defended against the accusation. 

There can be no question as to the effect 
likely to be produced on an individual by his 
conversion from the ordinary acceptance of 
current ideals as safe standards of conduct, to 
the vigilant open-mindedness of Ibsen. It must 
at once greatly deepen the sense of moral re- 
sponsibility. Before conversion the individual 
anticipates nothing worse in the way of exami- 
nation at the judgment bar of his conscience 
than such questions as, Have you kept the com- 
mandments ? Have you obeyed the law ? Have 
you attended church regularly ; paid your rates 
and taxes to Caesar ; and contributed, in reason, 
to charitable institutions? It may be hard to 
do all these things ; but it is still harder not to 
do them, as our ninety-nine moral cowards in 
the hundred well know. And even a scoundrel 
can do them all and yet live a worse life than 
the smuggler or prostitute who must answer No 
all through the catechism. Substitute for such 
a technical examination one in which the whole 
point to be settled is, Guilty or Not Guilty ? — one 

132 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

in which there is no more and no less respect for 
chastity than for incontinence, for subordination 
than for rebellion, for legality than for illegality, 
for piety than for blasphemy, in short, for the 
standard virtues than for the standard vices, and 
immediately, instead of lowering the moral 
standard by relaxing the tests of worth, you 
raise it by increasing their stringency to a point 
at which no mere Pharisaism or moral cowardice 
can pass them. Naturally this does not please 
the Pharisee. The respectable lady of the 
strictest Christian principles, who has brought 
up her children with such relentless regard to 
their ideal morality that if they have any spirit 
left in them by the time they arrive at years of 
independence they use their liberty to rush deli- 
riously to the devil — this unimpeachable woman 
has always felt it unjust that the respect she 
wins should be accompanied by deep-seated 
detestation, whilst the latest spiritual heiress of 
Nell Gwynne, whom no respectable person dare 
bow to in the street, is a popular idol. The 
reason is — though the virtuous lady does not 
know it — that Nell Gwynne is a better woman 
than she ; and the abolition of the idealist test 
which brings her out a worse one, and its replace- 
ment by the realist test which would shew the true 
relation between them, would be a most desirable 
step forward in public morals, especially as it 

TJie Moral of the Plays. 133 

would act impartially, and set the good side of 
the Pharisee above the bad side of the Bohemian 
as ruthlessly as it would set the good side of the 
Bohemian above the bad side of the Pharisee. 
For as long as convention goes counter to reahty 
in these matters, people will be led into Hedda 
Gabler's error of making an ideal of vice. If 
we maintain the convention that the distinction 
between Catherine of Russia and Queen Vic- 
toria, between Nell Gwynne and Mrs Proudie, is 
the distinction between a bad woman and a 
good woman, we need not be surprised when 
those who sympathize with Catherine and Nell 
conclude that it is better to be a bad woman 
than a good one, and go on recklessly to con- 
ceive a prejudice against teetotallism and mono- 
gamy, and a prepossession in favour of alcoholic 
excitement and promiscuous amours. Ibsen him- 
self is kinder to the man who has gone his own 
way as a rake and a drunkard than to the man 
who is respectable because he dare not be other- 
wise. We find that the franker and healthier a 
boy is, the more certain is he to prefer pirates 
and highwa}'men, or Dumas musketeers, to 
"pillars of society" as his favourite heroes of 
romance. We have already seen both Ibsenites 
and anti-Ibsenites who seem to think that the 
cases of Nora and Mrs Elvsted are meant to 
establish a golden rule for women who wish to 

1 34 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

be " emancipated," the said golden rule being 
simply, Run away from your husband. But 
in Ibsen's view of life, that would come under 
the same condemnation as the conventional 
golden rule, Cleave to your husband until death 
do you part. Most people know of a case or 
two in which it would be wise for a wife to follow 
the example of Nora or even of Mrs Elvsted, 
But they must also know cases in which the 
results of such a course would be as tragi-comic 
as those of Gregers Werle's attempt in The Wild 
Duck to do for the Ekdal household what Lona 
Hessel did for the Bernick household. What 
Ibsen insists on is that there is no golden rule 
— that conduct must justify itself by its effect 
upon happiness and not by its conformity to any 
rule or ideal. And since happiness consists in 
the fulfilment of the will, which is constantly 
growing, and cannot be fulfilled to-day under 
the conditions which secured its fulfilment yes- 
terday, he claims afresh the old Protestant right 
of private judgment in questions of conduct as 
against all institutions, the so-called Protestant 
Churches themselves included. 

Here I must leave the matter, merely remind- 
ing those who may think that I have forgotten 
to reduce Ibsenism to a formula for them, that 
its quintessence is that there is no formula. 


1HAVE a word or two to add as to the diffi- 
culties which Ibsen's philosophy places in 
the way of those who are called on to 
impersonate his characters on the stage in Eng- 
land. His idealist figures, at once higher and 
more mischievous than ordinary Philistines, 
puzzle by their dual aspect the conventional 
actor, who persists in assuming that if he is to 
be selfish on the stage he must be villainous ; 
that if he is to be self-sacrificing and scrupulous 
he must be a hero ; and that if he is to satirize 
himself unconsciously he must be comic. He 
is constantly striving to get back to familiar 
ground by reducing his part to one of the stage 
types with which he is familiar, and which he 
has learnt to present by rule of thumb. The 
more experienced he is, the more certain 
is he to de-Ibsenize the play into a melo- 
drama or a farcical comedy of the common 
sort. Give him Helmer to play, and he begins 
by declaring that the part is a mass of " incon- 
sistencies ", and ends by suddenly grasping the 
idea that it is only Joseph Surface over again. 
Give him Gregers Werle, the devotee of Truth, 
and he will first play him in the vein of George 

1 36 The Quintessence of Ibsenisnt. 

Washington, and then, when he finds that the 
audience laughs at him instead of taking him 
respectfully, rush to the conclusion that Gregers 
is only his old friend the truthful milkman in 
A Phenomenon in a Smock Frock\ and begin to 
play for the laughs and relish them. That is, 
if there are only laughs enough to make the 
part completely comic. Otherwise he will want 
to omit the passages which provoke them. 
To be laughed at when playing a serious 
part is hard upon an actor, and still more 
upon an actress : it is derision, than which 
nothing is more terrible to those whose liveli- 
hood depends on public approbation, and whose 
calling produces an abnormal development of 
self- consciousness. Now Ibsen undoubtedly 
does freely require from his artists that they 
shall not only possess great skill and power on 
every plane of their art, but that they shall also 
be ready to make themselves acutely ridiculous 
sometimes at the very climax of their most deeply 
felt passages. It is not to be wondered at that 
they prefer to pick and choose among the lines 
of their parts, retaining the great professional 
opportunities afforded by the tragic scenes, and 
leaving out the touches which complete the por- 
trait at the expense of the model's vanity. If 
an actress of established reputation were asked 
to play Hedda Gabler, her first impulse would 

Appendix. 137 

probably be to not only turn Hedda into a 
Brinvilliers, or a Borgia, or a " Forget-me-not ", 
but to suppress all the meaner callosities and 
odiousnesses which detract from Hedda's dig- 
nity as dignity is estimated on the stage. The 
result would be about as satisfactory to a skilled 
critic as that of the retouching which has made 
shop window photography the most worthless 
of the arts. The whole point of an Ibsen play 
lies in the exposure of the very conventions 
upon which are based those by which the actor 
is ridden. Charles Surface or Tom Jones may 
be very effectively played by artists who fully 
accept the morality professed by Joseph Surface 
and Blifil. Neither Fielding nor Sheridan forces 
upon either actor or audience the dilemma 
that since Charles and Tom are lovable, there 
must be something hopelessly inadequate in 
the commercial and sexual morality which con- 
demns them as a pair of blackguards. The 
ordinary actor will tell you that the authors 
" do not defend their heroes' conduct ', not 
seeing that making them lovable is the most 
complete defence of their conduct that could 
possibly be made. How far Fielding and 
Sheridan saw it — how far Moliere or Mozart 
were convinced that the statue had right on his 
side when he threw Don Juan into the bottom- 
less pit —how far Milton went in his sympathy 

138 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

with Lucifer : all these are speculative points 
which no actor has hitherto been called upon to 
solve. But they are the very subjects of Ibsen's 
plays : those whose interest and curiosity are 
not excited by them find him the most puzzling 
and tedious of dramatists. He has not only 
made " lost " women lovable ; but he has recog- 
nized and avowed that this is a vital justifica- 
tion for them, and has accordingly explicitly 
argued on their side and awarded them the 
sympathy which poetic justice grants only to 
the righteous. He has made the terms "lost" 
and " ruined " in this sense ridiculous by making 
women apply them to men with the most ludi- 
crous effect. Hence Ibsen cannot be played 
from the conventional point of view : to make 
that practicable the plays would have to be 
rewritten. In the rewriting, the fascination of the 
parts would vanish, and with it their attraction 
for the performers. A D oil's House was adapted 
in this fashion, though not at the instigation of 
an actress; but the adaptation fortunately failed. 
Otherwise we might have to endure in Ibsen's 
case what we have already endured in that of 
Shakespear, many of whose plays were sup- 
planted for centuries by incredibly debased ver- 
sions, of which Gibber's Richard III. and Gar- 
rick's Katharine and Petruchio have lasted to 
our own time. 

Appendix. 1 39 

Taking Talma's estimate of eighteen years 
as the apprenticeship of a completely accom- 
plished stage artist, there is little encouragement 
to offer Ibsen parts to our finished actors and 
actresses. They do not understand them, and 
would not play them in their integrity if they 
could be induced to attempt them. In Eng- 
land only two women in the full maturity of 
their talent have hitherto meddled with Ibsen. 
One of these, Miss Genevieve Ward, who 
" created " the part of Lona Hessel in the Eng- 
lish version of Pillars of Society, had the advan- 
tage of exceptional enterprise and intelligence, 
and of a more varied culture and experience of 
life and art than are common in her profes- 
sion. The other, Mrs Theodore Wright, the first 
English Mrs Alving, was hardly known to the 
dramatic critics, though her personality and her 
artistic talent as an amateur reciter and actress 
had been familiar to the members of most 
of the advanced social and political bodies in 
London since the days of the International. It 
was precisely because her record lay outside the 
beaten track of newspaper criticism that she was 
qualified to surprise its writers as she did. In 
every other instance, the women who first ven- 
tured upon playing Ibsen heroines were young 
actresses whose ability had not before been 
fully tested and whose technical apprenticeships 

140 The Quintessence of Ibsenisni. 

were far from complete. Miss Janet Achurch, 
though she settled the then disputed question of 
the feasibility of Ibsen's plays on the English 
stage by her impersonation of Nora in 1889, 
which still remains the most complete artistic 
achievement in the new genre, had not been long 
enough on the stage to secure a unanimous ad- 
mission of her genius, though it was of the most 
irresistible and irrepressible kind. Miss Florence 
Farr, who may claim the palm for artistic cour- 
age and intellectual conviction in selecting for 
her experiment Rosniersholin, incomparably the 
most difficult and dangerous, as it is also the 
greatest, of Ibsen's later plays, had almost relin- 
quished her profession from lack of interest in 
its routine, after spending a few years in acting 
farcical comedies. Miss Elizabeth Robins and 
Miss Marion Lea, to whose unaided enterprise 
we owe our early acquaintance with Hedda 
Gabler on the stage, were, like Miss Achurch 
and Miss Farr, juniors in their profession. All 
four were products of the modern movement for 
the higher education of women, literate, in touch 
with advanced thought, and coming by natural 
predilection on the stage from outside the thea- 
trical class, in contradistinction to the senior 
generation of inveterately sentimental actresses, 
schooled in the old fashion if at all, born into their 
profession, quite out of the political and social 

Appendix. 14 1 

movement around them — in short, intellectually 
7iawe to the last degree. The new school says 
to the old, You cannot play Ibsen because you 
are ignoramuses. To which the old school re- 
torts, You cannot play anything because you are 
amateurs. But taking amateur in its sense of 
unpractised executant, both schools are amateur 
as far as Ibsen's plays are concerned. The old 
technique breaks down in the new theatre ; for 
though in theory it is a technique of general 
application, making the artist so plastic that he 
can mould himself to any shape designed by the 
dramatist, in practice it is but a stock of tones 
and attitudes out of which, by appropriate selec- 
tion and combination, a certain limited number 
of conventional stage figures can be made up. 
It is no more possible to get an Ibsen character 
out of it than to contrive a Greek costume out 
of an English wardrobe ; and some of the 
attempts already made have been so grotesque, 
that at present, when one of the more specifi- 
cally Ibsenian parts has to be filled, it is actually 
safer to entrust it to a novice than to a com- 
petent and experienced actor. 

A steady improvement may be expected in 
the performances of Ibsen's plays as the young 
players whom they interest gain the experi- 
ence needed to make mature artists of them. 
They will gain this experience not only in 

142- TJie Quintessence of Ihsenism. 

plays by Ibsen himself, but in the vvorlcs of 
dramatists who will have been largely influenced 
by Ibsen. Playwrights who formerly only com- 
pounded plays according to the received pre- 
scriptions for producing tears or laughter, are 
already taking their profession seriously to the 
full extent of their capacity, and venturing more 
and more to substitute the incidents and cata- 
strophes of spiritual history for the swoons, sur- 
prises, discoveries, murders, duels, assassinations 
and intrigues which are the commonplaces of 
the theatre at present. Others, who have no 
such impulse, find themselves forced to raise the 
quality of their work by the fact that even 
those who witness Ibsen's plays with undisguised 
weariness and aversion, find, when they return 
to their accustomed theatrical fare, that they 
have suddenly become conscious of absurdities 
and artificialities in it which never troubled them 
before. In just the same way the painters of 
the Naturalist school reformed their opponents 
much more extensively than the number of their 
own direct admirers indicates : for example, it 
is still common to hear the most contemptuous 
abuse and ridicule of Monet and Whistler from 
persons who have nevertheless had their former 
tolerance of the unrealities of the worst type of 
conventional studio picture wholly destroyed by 
these painters. Until quite lately, too, musicians 

Appendix. 143 

were to be heard extolling Donizetti in the 
same breath with which they vehemently decried 
Wagner. They would make wry faces at every 
chord in Tristan und Isolde, and never suspected 
that their old faith was shaken until they went 
back to La Favorite, and found that it had become 
as obsolete as the rhymed tragedies of Lee and 
Otway. In the drama then, we may depend on 
it that though we shall not have another Ibsen, 
yet nobody will write for the stage after him as 
most playwrights wrote before him. This will 
involve a corresponding change in the techni- 
cal stock-in-trade of the actor, whose ordinary 
training will then cease to be a positive disad- 
vantage to him when he is entrusted with an 
Ibsen part. 

No one need fear on this account that Ibsen 
will gradually destroy melodrama. It might as 
well be assumed that Shakespcar will destroy 
music hall entertainments, or the prose romances 
of William Morris supersede the Illustrated 
Police News. All forms of art rise with the 
culture and capacity of the human race ; but 
the forms rise together : the higher forms do 
not return upon and submerge the lower. The 
wretch who finds his happiness in setting a leash 
of greyhounds on a hare or in watching a terrier 
killing rats in a pit, may evolve into the mere 
blockhead who would rather go to a " free-and- 

144 '^^^^ Quintessence of Ibscnisin. 

easy " and chuckle over a dull, silly, obscene song ; 
but such a step will not raise him to the level of 
the frequenter of music halls of the better class, 
where, though the entertainment is administered 
in small separate doses or "turns", yet the 
turns have some artistic pretension. Above 
him again is the patron of that elementary form 
of sensational drama in which there is hardly 
any more connection between the incidents than 
the fact that the same people take part in them 
and call forth some very simple sort of moral 
judgment by being consistently villainous or 
virtuous throughout. As such a drama would 
be almost as enjoyable if the acts were played in 
the reverse of their appointed order, no incon- 
venience except that of a back scat is suffered 
by the playgoer who comes in for half price at 
nine o'clock. On a higher plane we have dramas 
with a rational sequence of incidents, the in- 
terest of any one of which depends on those 
which have preceded it ; and as we go up from 
plane to plane we find this sequence becoming 
more and more organic until at last we come to 
a class of play in which nobody can understand 
the last act who has not seen the first also. 
Accordingly, the institution of half price at nine 
o'clock does not exist at theatres devoted to 
plays of this class. The highest type of play is 
completely homogeneous often consisting of a 

Appendix. 145 

single very complex incident ; and not even the 
most exhaustive information as to the story 
enables a spectator to receive the full force of 
the impression aimed at in any given passage if 
he enters the theatre for that passage alone. The 
success of such plays depends upon the exercise 
by the audience of powers of memory, imagina- 
tion, insight, reasoning, and sympathy, which only 
a small minority of the playgoing public at pre- 
sent possesses. To the rest the higher drama is 
as disagreeably perplexing as the game of chess 
is to a man who has barely enough capacity to 
understand skittles. Consequently, just as we 
have the chess club and the skittle alley pros- 
pering side by side, we shall have the theatre 
of Shakespear, Moliere, Goethe, and Ibsen pros- 
pering alongside that of Henry Arthur Jones 
and Gilbert ; of Sardou, Grundy, and Pinero ; of 
Buchanan and Ohnet, as naturally as these 
already prosper alongside that of Pettit and 
Sims, which again does no more harm to the 
music halls than the music halls do to the wax- 
works or even the ratpit, although this last is 
dropping into the limbo of discarded brutalities 
by the same progressive movement that has led 
the intellectual playgoer to discard Sardou and 
take to Ibsen. It has often been said that 
political parties progress serpent-wise, the tail 
being to-day where the head was formerly, yet 

146 TJie Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

never overtaking the head. The same figure 
may be appHed to grades of playgoers, with the 
reminder that this sort of serpent grows at the 
head and drops off joints of his tail as he glides 
along. Therefore it is not only inevitable that 
new theatres should be built for the new first 
class of playgoers, but that the best of the 
existing theatres should be gradually converted 
to their use, even at the cost of ousting, in spite 
of much angry protest, the old patrons who are 
being left behind by the movement. 

The resistance of the old playgoers to the new 
plays will be supported by the elder managers, the 
elder actors, and the elder critics. One manager 
pities Ibsen for his ignorance of effective play- 
writing, and declares that he can see exactly 
what ought to have been done to make a real 
play of Hedda Gablei^. His case is parallel to 
that of Mr Henry Irving, who saw exactly what 
ought to have been done to make a real play 
of Goethe's Faust, and got Mr Wills to do it. A 
third manager, repelled and disgusted by Ibsen, 
condemns Hedda as totally deficient in elevating 
moral sentiment. One of the plays which he 
prefers is Sardou's La Tosca ! Clearly these 
three representative gentlemen, all eminent both 
as actors and managers, will hold by the con- 
ventional drama until the commercial success of 
Ibsen forces them to recognize that in the course 

Appendix. 147 

of nature they are falling behind the taste of the 
day. Mr Thorne, at the Vaudeville Theatre, was 
the first leading manager who ventured to put a 
play of Ibsen's into his evening bill ; and he did 
not do so until Miss Elizabeth Robins and Miss 
Marion Lea had given ten experimental perfor- 
mances at his theatre at their own risk. Mr 
Charrington and Miss Janet Achurch, who, long 
before that, staked their capital and reputation 
on A DolVs Hoiise^ had to take a theatre and go 
into management themselves for the purpose. 
The production of Rosmershobn was not a 
managerial enterprise in the ordinary sense at 
all : it was an experiment made by Miss Farr, 
who played Rebecca — an experiment, too, which 
was considerably hampered by the refusal of the 
London managers to allow members of their 
companies to take part in the performance. In 
short, the senior division would have nothing to 
say for themselves in the matter of the one 
really progressive theatrical movement of their 
time, but for the fact that Mr W. H. Vernon's 
effort to obtain a hearing for Pillars of Society 
in 1880 was the occasion of the first appearance 
of the name of Ibsen on an English playbill. 

But it had long been obvious that the want 
of a playhouse at which the aims of the manage- 
ment should be unconditionally artistic was not 
likely to be supplied either at our purely com- 

148 TJie Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

mercial theatres or at those governed by actor- 
managers reigning absolutely over all the other 
actors, a power which a young man abuses to 
provide opportunities for himself, and which an 
older man uses in an old-fashioned way. Mr 
William Archer, in an article in the FortnigJitly 
Reviczv^ invited private munificence to endow 
a National Theatre ; and some time later a 
young Dutchman, Mr J. T. Grein, an enthusiast 
in theatrical art, came forward with a somewhat 
similar scheme. Private munificence remained 
irresponsive — fortunately, one must think, since 
it was a feature of both plans that the manage- 
ment of the endowed theatre should be handed 
over to committees of managers and actors of 
established reputation —in other words, to the 
very people whose deficiencies have created the 
whole difficulty. Mr Grein, however, being pre- 
pared to take any practicable scheme in hand 
himself, soon saw the realities of the situation well 
enough to understand that to wait for the float- 
ing of a fashionable Utopian enterprise, with 
the Prince of Wales as President and a capital 
of at least ^20,000, would be to wait for ever. 
He accordingly hired a cheap public hall in 
Tottenham Court Road, and, though his re- 
sources fell far short of those with which an 
ambitious young professional man ventures upon 
giving a dance, made a bold start by announcing 

Appendix. 149 

a performance of Gliosis to inaugurate " The 
Independent Theatre" on the lines of the 
Theatre Libre of Paris. The result was that he 
received sufficient support both in money and 
gratuitous professional aid to enable him to give 
the performance at the Royalty I'heatre ; and 
throughout the following week he shared with 
Ibsen the distinction of being abusively dis- 
cussed to an extent that must have amply con- 
vinced him that his efforts had not passed 
unheeded. Possibly he may have counted on 
being handled generously for the sake of his 
previous services in obtaining some considera- 
tion for the contemporary English drama on the 
continent, even to the extent of bringing about 
the translation and production in foreign theatres 
of some of the most popular of our recent 
plays ; but if he had any such hope it was not 
fulfilled ; for he received no quarter whatever. 
And at present it is clear that unless those 
who appreciate the service he has rendered to 
theatrical art in England support him as ener- 
getically as his opponents attack him, it will be 
impossible for him to maintain the performances 
of the Independent Theatre at the pitch of 
efficiency and frequency which will be needed 
if it is to have any wide effect on the taste 
and seriousness of the playgoing public. One 
of the most formidable and exasperating ob- 

150 The Qjiintessence of Ibsenism. 

stacks in his way is the detestable censorship 
exercised by the official licenser of plays, a 
public nuisance of which it seems impossible to 
rid ourselves under existing Parliamentary con- 
ditions. The licenser has the London theatres 
at his mercy through his power to revoke their 
licenses ; and he is empowered to exact a fee 
for reading each play submitted to him, so that 
his income depends on his allowing no play to 
be produced without going through that ordeal. 
As these powers are granted to him in order 
that he may forbid the performance of plays 
which would have an injurious effect on public 
morals, the unfortunate gentleman is bound in 
honour to try to do his best to keep the stage 
in the right path — which he of course can set 
about in no other way than by making it a 
reflection of his individual views, which are 
necessarily dictated by his temperament and by 
the political and pecuniary interests of his class. 
This he does not dare to do : self-mistrust and 
the fear of public opinion paralyze him when- 
ever either the strong hand or the open mind 
claims its golden opportunity ; and the net 
result is that indecency and vulgarity are ram- 
pant on the London stage, from which flows 
the dramatic stream that irrigates the whole 
country ; whilst Shelley's Cenci tragedy and 
Ibsen's Ghosts are forbidden, and have in fact 

Appendix, 1 5 1 

only been performed once "in private": that is, 
before audiences of invited non-paying guests. 
It is now so well understood that only plays of 
the commonest idealist type can be sure of a 
license in London, that the novel and not the 
drama is the form adopted as a matter of course 
by thoughtful masters of fiction. The merits of 
the case ought to be too obvious to need re- 
stating : it is plain that every argument that 
supports a censorship of the stage supports with 
tenfold force a censorship of the press, which is 
admittedly an abomination. What is wanted is the 
entire abolition of the censorship and the estab- 
lishment of Free Art in the sense in which we 
speak of Free Trade. There is not the slightest 
ground for protecting theatres against the com- 
petition of music halls, or for denying to Mr Grein 
as a theatrical e^ttrepreneiir the freedom he would 
enjoy as a member of a publishing firm. In the 
absence of a censorship a manager can be pro- 
secuted for an offence against public morals, just 
as a publisher can. At present, though managers 
may not touch Shelley or Ghosts, they find no 
difficulty in obtaining official sanction, practi- 
cally amounting to indemnity, for indecencies 
from which our uncensured novels are perfectly 
free. The truth is that the real support of the 
censorship comes from those Puritans who regard 
Art as a department of original sin. To them 

152 The Quintessence of Ibsenzsm. 

the theatre is an unmixed evil, and every restric- 
tion on it a gain to the cause of righteousness. 
Against them stand those who regard Art in all 
its forms as a department of religion. The Holy 
War between the two sides has played a con- 
siderable part in the history of England, and is 
just now being prosecuted with renewed vigour 
by the Puritans. If their opponents do not dis- 
play equal energy, it is quite possible that we 
shall presently have a reformed censorship ten 
times more odious than the existing one, the 
very absurdity of which causes it to be exercised 
with a halfheartedness that prevents the licenser 
from doing his worst as well as his best. The 
wise policy for the friends of Art just now is 
to use the Puritan agitation in order to bring the 
matter to an issue, and then to make a vigorous 
effort to secure that the upshot shall be the total 
abolition of the censorship. 

As it is with the actors and managers, so it is 
with the critics : the supporters of Ibsen are the 
younger men. In the main, however, the Press 
follows the managers instead of leading them. 
The average newspaper dramatic critic is not 
a Lessing, a Lamb, or a Lewes : there was a 
time when he was not necessarily even an accus- 
tomed playgoer, but simply a member of the 
reporting or literary staff told off for theatre duty 
without any question as to his acquaintance with 

Appendix. 153 

dramatic literature. At present, though the 
special nature of his function is so far beginning 
to be recognized that appointments of the kind 
usually fall now into the hands of inveterate 
frequenters of the theatre, yet he is still little 
more than the man who supplies accounts of 
what takes place in the playhouses just as his 
colleague supplies accounts of what takes place 
at the police court — an important difference, 
however, being that the editor, who generally 
cares little about Art and knows less, will himself 
occasionally criticise, or ask one of his best 
writers to criticise, a remarkable police case, 
whereas he never dreams of theatrical art as a 
subject upon which there could be any editorial 
policy. Sir Edwin Arnold's editorial attack on 
Ibsen was due to the accidental circumstance 
that he, like Richelieu, writes verses between 
whiles. In fact, the " dramatic critic " of a news- 
paper, in ordinary circumstances, is at his best 
a good descriptive reporter, and at his worst a 
mere theatrical newsman. As such he is a person 
of importance among actors and managers, and 
of no importance whatever elsewhere. Naturally 
he frequents the circles in which alone he is made 
much of; and by the time he has seen so many 
performances that he has formed some critical 
standards in spite of himself, he has also enrolled 
among his personal acquaintances every actor 

1 54 TJie Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

and manager of a few years' standing, and 
become engaged in all the private likes and 
dislikes, the quarrels and friendships, in a word, 
in all the partialities which personal relations 
involve, at which point the value of his ver- 
dicts may be imagined. Add to this that if he 
has the misfortune to be attached to a paper 
to which theatrical advertisements are an object, 
or of which the editor and proprietors (or their 
wives) do not hesitate to incur obligations to 
managers by asking for complimentary admis- 
sions, he may often have to choose between 
making himself agreeable and forfeiting his post. 
So that he is not always to be relied on even as 
a newsman where the plain truth would give 
offence to any individual. 

Behind all the suppressive forces with which 
the critic has to contend comes the law of libel. 
Every adverse criticism of a public performer is 
a libel ; and any agreement among the critics 
to boycott artists who appeal to the law is a 
conspiracy. Of course the boycott does take 
place to a certain extent ; for if an artist, 
manager, or agent shews any disposition to 
retort to what is called a " slating " by a lawyer's 
letter, the critic, who cannot for his own sake ex- 
pose his employers to the expenses of an action 
or the anxiety attending the threat of one, will 
be tempted to shun the danger by simply never 

Appendix. 1 5 5 

again referring to the litigiously disposed person. 
But although this at first sight seems to suffi- 
ciently guarantee the freedom of criticism (for 
most public persons would suffer more from 
being ignored by the papers than from being 
attacked in them, however abusively) its opera- 
tion is really restricted on the one side to the 
comparatively few and powerful critics who are 
attached to important papers at a fixed salary, 
and on the other to those cntreprenetirs and 
artists about whom the public is not impera- 
tively curious. Most critics get paid for their 
notices at so much per column or per line, so 
that their incomes depend on the quantity they 
write. Under these conditions they fine them- 
selves every time they ignore a performance. 
Again, a dramatist or a manager may attain such 
a position that his enterprises form an indis- 
pensable part of the news of the day. He can 
then safely intimidate a hostile critic by a threat 
of legal proceedings, knowing that the paper can 
afford neither to brave nor ignore him. The 
late Charles Reade, for example, was a most 
dangerous man to criticize adversely ; but the 
very writers against whom he took actions found 
it impossible to boycott him ; and what Reade did 
out of a natural overflow of indignant pugnacity, 
some of our more powerful artistic entreprenejirs 
occasionally threaten to do now after a deliberate 

1 56 The Quintessence of Ibsenisin. 

calculation of the advantages of their position. 
If legal proceedings are actually taken, and the 
case is not, as usual, compromised behind the 
scenes, the uncertainty of the law receives its 
most extravagant illustration from a couple of 
lawyers arguing a question of fine art before a 
jury of men of business. Even if the critic were 
a capable speaker and pleader, which he is not 
in the least likely to be, he would be debarred 
from conducting his own case by the fact that 
his comparatively wealthy employer and not 
himself would be the defendant in the case. In 
short, the law is against straightforward criticism 
at the very points where it is most needed ; and 
though it is true that an ingenious and witty 
writer can make any artist or performance acutely 
ridiculous in the eyes of ingenious and witty 
people without laying himself open to an action, 
and indeed with every appearance of good- 
humoured indulgence, such applications of wit 
and ingenuity do criticism no good; whilst in 
any case they offer no remedy to the plain 
critic writing for plain readers. 

All this does not mean that the entire Press is 
hopelessly corrupt in its criticism of Art. But it 
certainly does mean that the odds against the 
independence of the Press critic are so heavy 
that no man can maintain it completely with- 
out a force of character and a personal autho- 

Appendix. 157 

rity which are rare in any profession, and which 
in most of them can command higher pecuniary 
terms and prospects than any which journaHsm 
can offer. The final degrees of thoroughness 
have no market value on the Press ; for, other 
things being equal, a journal with a critic who 
is goodhumoured and compliant will have no 
fewer readers than one with a critic who is in- 
flexible where the interests of Art and the public 
are concerned. I do not exaggerate or go 
beyond the warrant of my own experience when 
I say that unless a critic is prepared not only 
to do much more work than the public will 
pay him for, but to risk his livelihood every 
time he strikes a serious blow at the powerful 
interests vested in artistic abuses of all kinds 
(conditions which in the long run tire out the 
strongest man), he must submit to compromises 
which detract very considerably from the trust- 
worthiness of his criticism. Even the critic 
who is himself in a position to brave these 
risks must find a sympathetic and courageous 
editor-proprietor who will stand by him without 
reference to the commercial advantage — or dis- 
advantage — of his incessant warfare. As all 
the economic conditions of our society tend to 
throw our journals more and more into the 
hands of successful moneymakers, the exceed- 
ing scarcity of this lucky combination of reso- 

158 The Qutiitessejzce of Ibsenisnt. 

lute, capable, and incorruptible critic, sympathetic 
editor, and disinterested and courageous pro- 
prietor, can hardly be appreciated by those who 
only know the world of journalism through its 
black and white veil. 

On the whole, though excellent criticisms are 
written every week by men who, either as writers 
distinguished in other branches of literature and 
journalism, or as civil servants, are practically 
independent of this or that particular appoint- 
ment as dramatic critic (not to mention the 
few whom strong vocation and force of character 
have rendered incorruptible) there remains a 
great mass of newspaper reports of theatrical 
events which is only called dramatic criticism by 
courtesy. Among the critics properly so called 
opinions are divided about Ibsen in the inevit- 
able way into Philistine, idealist, and realist 
(more or less). Just at present the cross firing 
between them is rather confusing. Without being 
necessarily an Ibsenist, a critic may see at a 
glance that abuse of the sort quoted on page 89 
is worthless ; and he may for the credit of his 
cloth attack it on that ground. Thus we have Mr 
A. B. Walkley, of TJie Speaker^ one of the most 
able and independent of our critics, provoking 
Mr Clement Scott beyond measure by alluding 
to the writers who had just been calling the 
admirers of Ibsen " muck-ferreting dogs ", as 

Appendix. 1 59 

" these gentry ", with a good-humoured but very 
perceptible contempt for their literary attain- 
ments. Thereupon Mr Scott publishes a vindi- 
cation of the literateness of that school, of which 
Mr Walkley makes unmerciful fun. But Mr 
Walkley is by no means committed to Ibsenism 
by his appreciation of Ibsen's status as an 
artist, much less by his depreciation of the lite- 
rary status of Ibsen's foes. On the other hand 
there is Mr Frederick Wed more, a professed 
admirer of Balzac, conceiving such a violent 
antipathy to Ibsen that he almost echoes Sir 
Edwin Arnold, whose denunciations are at least 
as applicable to the author of Vantrin as to the 
author of Gliosis. Mr George Moore, accus- 
tomed to fight on behalf of Zola against the 
men who are now attacking Ibsen, takes the 
field promptly against his old enemies in defence, 
not of Ibsenism, but of Free Art. Even Mr 
William Archer expressly guards himself against 
being taken as an Ibsenist doctrinaire. In the 
face of all this, it is little to the point that some 
of the critics who have attacked Ibsen have un- 
doubtedly done so because — to put it bluntly — 
they are too illiterate and incompetent in the 
sphere of dramatic poetry to conceive or relish 
anything more substantial than the theatrical 
fare to which they are accustomed ; or that 
others, intimidated by the outcry raised by Sir 

i6o The Quintessence of Ibsenism. 

Edwin Arnold and the section of the public 
typified by Pastor Manders (not to mention 
Mr Pecksniff), against their own conviction join 
the chorus of disparagement from modesty, 
caution, compliance — in short, from want of 
the courage of their profession. There is no 
reason to suppose that if the whole body of 
critics had been endowed with a liberal educa- 
tion and an independent income, the num- 
ber of Ibsenists among them would be much 
greater than at present, however the tone of 
their adverse criticism might have been improved. 
Ibsen, as a pioneer in stage progress no less 
than in morals, is bound to have the majority 
of his contemporaries against him, whether as 
actors, managers, or critics. 

Finally, it is necessary to say, by way of 
warning, that many of the minor combatants 
on both sides have either not studied the plays 
at all, or else have been so puzzled that they 
have allowed themselves to be misled by the 
attacks of the idealists into reading extravagant 
immoralities between the lines, as, for instance, 
that Oswald in Gliosis is really the son of 
Pastor Manders, or that Lovborg is the father 
of Hedda Tesman's child. It has even been 
asserted that horrible exhibitions of death and 
disease occur in almost every scene of Ibsen's 
plays, which, for tragedies, are exceptionally 

Appendix. i6i 

free from visible physical horrors. It is not too 
much to say that very few of the critics have yet 
got so far as to be able to narrate accurately the 
stories of the plays they have witnessed. No 
wonder, then, that they have not yet made up 
their minds on the more difficult point of Ibsen's 
philosophic drift — though I do not myself see 
how performances of his plays can be quite 
adequately judged without reference to it. One 
consequence of this is that those who are in- 
terested, fascinated, and refreshed by Ibsen's art 
misrepresent his meaning benevolently quite as 
often as those who are perplexed and disgusted 
misrepresent it maliciously ; and it already looks 
as if Ibsen might attain undisputed supremacy 
as a modern playwright without necessarily con- 
verting a single critic to Ibsenism. Indeed it 
is not possible that his meaning should be fully 
recognized, much less assented to, until Society 
as we now know it loses its self-complacency 
through the growth of the conviction foretold 
by Richard Wagner when he declared that 
" Man will never be that which he can and 
should be until, by a conscious following of that 
inner natural necessity which is the only true 
necessity, he makes his life a mirror of nature, and 
frees himself from his thraldom to outer artificial 
counterfeits. Then will he first become a living 
man, who now is a mere wheel in the mechanism 
of this or that Religion, Nationality, or State." 



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